I am writing to express my great concern about the series of stories you have published in your newspaper about the Wooten family of Oak Park and specifically their two older sons. Shockingly, the stories have alleged numerous incidents of serious criminal wrongdoing – including alleged juvenile incidents, which are strictly confidential under circuit court rules – without attributing these allegations to a single individual or document. I know this family and can tell you that much of what your stories have alleged simply is not true or is incomplete.
For example, your newspaper published allegations regarding juvenile and other incidents allegedly involving one member of this family without mentioning that the charges were dropped by the State’s Attorney’s Office for lack of evidence. Check this out, and you will see. In the very first sentence of the May 21 story, you characterized one brother in this family as having “a history of behavioral and criminal problems” without going on to list a single crime of which he has been convicted and without attributing this description to a single individual or institution. [Neighbors want action on two-flat, news, May 20] Did it occur to you that there were two sides to this story? Had you checked it out, you would have learned that this same young man whom you have defamed graduated from Oak Park-River Forest High School and is looking forward to a career in auto mechanics. He is a human being.
Your latest story also stated, again without attribution, that an April 3 arrest was “the latest of about 40 that police have documented regarding the Wootens over the past three years.” Did your newspaper obtain the documentation of these 40 alleged police incidents before publishing this astonishingly broad, inflammatory statement? I am certain that such documentation does not exist because the incidents did not happen. This is how libel lawsuits are born.
I also am very concerned about the role of the Oak Park Police Department in targeting this family, which happens to be an African-American family living in Section 8 housing in Oak Park. When I spoke with your publisher about my concerns, he told me that Wednesday Journal obtained its information for these stories “from the police.” Since when is the local police department disclosing confidential information about juvenile offenders to the newspaper? Juvenile court proceedings and records are confidential in Illinois and protected by law from disclosure. They should not be released by police officers, published or made reference to in the local newspaper.
And disclosing confidential information about a Section 8 resident for the purpose of trying to get a Section 8 resident evicted is a violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act. Publishing false information for the same purpose is an invitation for a libel and Human Rights Act lawsuit against your newspaper – especially if your unattributed reporting ends up costing this family their home. I have seen this happen before in situations involving Oak Park-River Forest High School.
Your newspaper has covered neighborhood disputes before without specifically targeting and slandering one family. Why do that now?
Finally, I want to relate that I am personally familiar with some of the police harassment incidents that these two young men’s mother described in another story published in your newspaper. [A Mother Responds, news, May 20] In one of them, the family told me, at the time it happened, that a particular police officer spit in these young men’s faces and used ugly racial epithets when he encountered them on a village street. I was not present for this incident, but it appeared to inflict great pain and fear on the family, and I found the story and the manner in which it was told to me to be very convincing.
I am afraid that Wednesday Journal’s unattributed, unbalanced coverage will have the effect of turning a personal vendetta by some police officers into a hue and cry to run this very vulnerable family out of town. The members of this family, like other Oak Park residents, have civil rights. Although they have had their troubles from time to time, the Wootens and their extended family have lived in Oak Park for more than a generation. Their children and their relatives’ children, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc., were raised here. They have strong roots in the community. Your reporter did not uncover this information in his story about this family, nor mention that there is a third, younger child at home who attends Oak Park schools and undoubtedly has been traumatized by your newspaper’s very public defamation of the child’s siblings.
I urge you to print a retraction and refrain from engaging in this type of libelous reporting in the future.
Meg Reynolds is a lawyer, a 16-year Oak Park resident and a volunteer with APPLE (African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education).