Haynes v. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Decision Date17 December 1993
Docket NumberNo. 93-1775,93-1775
Citation8 F.3d 1222
Parties21 Media L. Rep. 2161 Luther HAYNES and Dorothy Haynes, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. ALFRED A. KNOPF, INCORPORATED, and Nicholas Lemann, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Michael Goldfein, Daniel S. Hefter (argued), Arthur F. Radke, Caroline K. Vickrey, Maureen A. Gorman, Hefter & Radke, Chicago, IL, for plaintiffs-appellants.

James A. Klenk (argued), Samuel Fifer, Gregory R. Naron, Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, Chicago, IL, for defendants-appellees.

Before POSNER, Chief Judge, MANION, Circuit Judge, and WOOD, Jr., Senior Circuit Judge.

POSNER, Chief Judge.

Luther Haynes and his wife, Dorothy Haynes nee Johnson, appeal from the dismissal on the defendants' motion for summary judgment of their suit against Nicholas Lemann, the author of a highly praised, best-selling book of social and political history called The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., the book's publisher. The plaintiffs claim that the book libels Luther Haynes and invades both plaintiffs' right of privacy. Federal jurisdiction is based on diversity, and the common law of Illinois is agreed to govern the substantive issues. The appeal presents difficult issues at the intersection of tort law and freedom of the press.

Between 1940 and 1970, five million blacks moved from impoverished rural areas in the South to the cities of the North in search of a better life. Some found it, and after sojourns of shorter or greater length in the poor black districts of the cities moved to middle-class areas. Others, despite the ballyhooed efforts of the federal government, particularly between 1964 and 1972, to erase poverty and racial discrimination, remained mired in what has come to be called the "urban ghetto." The Promised Land is a history of the migration. It is not history as a professional historian, a demographer, or a social scientist would write it. Lemann is none of these. He is a journalist and has written a journalistic history, in which the focus is on individuals whether powerful or representative. In the former group are the politicians who invented, executed, or exploited the "Great Society" programs. In the latter are a handful of the actual migrants. Foremost among these is Ruby Lee Daniels. Her story is the spine of the book. We are introduced to her on page 7; we take leave of her on page 346, within a few pages of the end of the text of the book.

When we meet her, it is the early 1940s and she is a young woman picking cotton on a plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi. "[B]lack sharecropper society on the eve of the introduction [in the 1940s] of the mechanical cotton picker [a major spur to the migration] was the equivalent of big-city ghetto society today in many ways. It was the national center of illegitimate childbearing and of the female-headed family." Ruby had married young, but after her husband had been inducted into the army on the eve of World War II she had fallen in love with a married man, by whom she had had a child. The man's wife died and Ruby married him, but they broke up after a month. Glowing reports from an aunt who had moved to Chicago persuaded Ruby Daniels to move there in 1946. She found a job doing janitorial work, but eventually lost the job and went on public aid. She was unmarried, and had several children, when in 1953 she met "the most important man in her life." Luther Haynes, born in 1924 or 1925, a sharecropper from Mississippi, had moved to Chicago in an effort to effect a reconciliation with his wife. The effort had failed. When he met Ruby Daniels he had a well-paying job in an awning factory. They lived together, and had children. But then "Luther began to drink too much. When he drank he got mean, and he and Ruby would get into ferocious quarrels. He was still working, but he wasn't always bringing his paycheck home." Ruby got work as a maid. They moved to a poorer part of the city. The relationship went downhill. "It got to the point where [Luther] would go out on Friday evenings after picking up his paycheck, and Ruby would hope he wouldn't come home, because she knew he would be drunk. On the Friday evenings when he did come home--over the years Ruby developed a devastating imitation of Luther, and could re-create the scene quite vividly--he would walk into the apartment, put on a record and turn up the volume, and saunter into their bedroom, a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, in the mood for love. On one such night, Ruby's last child, Kevin, was conceived. Kevin always had something wrong with him--he was very moody, he was scrawny, and he had a severe speech impediment. Ruby was never able to find out exactly what the problem was, but she blamed it on Luther; all that alcohol must have gotten into his sperm, she said."

Ruby was on public aid, but was cut off when social workers discovered she had a man in the house. She got a night job. Luther was supposed to stay with the children while she was at work, especially since they lived in a dangerous neighborhood; but often when she came home, at 3:00 a.m. or so, she would "find the older children awake, and when she would ask them if Luther had been there, the answer would be, 'No, ma'am.' " Ruby's last aid check, arriving providentially after she had been cut off, enabled the couple to buy a modest house on contract--it "was, by a wide margin, the best place she had ever lived." But "after only a few months, Luther ruined everything by going out and buying a brand-new 1961 Pontiac. It meant more to him than the house did, and when they couldn't make the house payment, he insisted on keeping the car" even though she hadn't enough money to buy shoes for the children. The family was kicked out of the house. They now moved frequently. They were reaching rock bottom. At this nadir, hope appeared in the ironic form of the Robert Taylor Homes, then a brand-new public housing project, now a notorious focus of drug addiction and gang violence. Ruby had had an application for public housing on file for many years, but the housing authority screened out unwed mothers. Told by a social worker that she could have an apartment in the Taylor Homes if she produced a marriage license, she and Luther (who was now divorced from his first wife) were married forthwith and promptly accepted as tenants. "The Haynes family chose to rejoice in their good fortune in becoming residents of the Robert Taylor Homes. As Ruby's son Larry, who was twelve years old at the time, says, 'I thought that was the beautifullest place in the world.' "

Even in the halcyon days of 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes were no paradise. There was considerable crime, and there were gangs, and Ruby's son Kermit joined one. Kermit was not Luther's son and did not recognize his authority. The two quarreled a lot. Meanwhile Luther had lost his job in the awning factory "that he had had for a decade, and then bounced around a little. He lost jobs because of transportation problems, because of layoffs, because of a bout of serious illness, because of his drinking, because he had a minor criminal record (having been in jail for disorderly conduct following a fight with Ruby), and because creditors were after him." He resumed "his old habit of not returning from work on Fridays after he got his paycheck." One weekend he didn't come home at all. In a search of his things Ruby discovered evidence that Luther was having an affair with Dorothy Johnson, a former neighbor. "Luther was not being particularly careful; he saw in Dorothy, who was younger than Ruby, who had three children compared to Ruby's eight, who had a job while Ruby was on public aid, the promise of an escape from the ghetto, and he was entranced." The children discovered the affair. Kermit tried to strangle Luther. In 1965 Luther moved out permanently, and eventually he and Ruby divorced.

Ruby remained in the Robert Taylor Homes until 1979, when she moved back to Clarksdale. She had become eligible for social security in 1978; and with her surviving children (one of her sons had died, either a suicide or murdered) now adults, though most of them deeply troubled adults and Kevin, whom Ruby in a custody proceeding described as retarded, still living at home, Ruby "is settling into old age with a sense of contentment about the circumstances she has found." But "there has always been that nagging sensation of incompleteness, which made itself felt most directly in her relationships with men."

After divorcing Ruby, Luther Haynes married Dorothy Johnson. He is still married to her, "owns a home on the far South Side of Chicago, and has worked for years as a parking-lot attendant; only recently have he and Ruby found that they can speak civilly to each other on the phone."

There is much more to the book than our paraphrase and excerpts--much about other migrants, about the travails of Ruby's children, about discrimination against blacks in both the North and the South, and about the politics of poverty programs in Washington and Chicago. But the excerpts we have quoted contain all the passages upon which the Hayneses' lawsuit is founded.

The charge of libel is confined to three statements in the book: that Haynes left his children alone at night when he was supposed to be watching them; that he lost a job or jobs because of drinking; and that he spent money on a car that he should have used to buy shoes for his children. We do not agree with the defendants that the dismissal of the libel claim must be upheld because Haynes has failed to allege pecuniary loss from the alleged libels ("special damages"). The rule in Illinois, which used to be limited to slander cases but has been extended to all defamation cases, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. Jacobson, 713 F.2d...

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