Illinois court upholds dismissal of coach's defamation suit

Stephen Miller | Libel | Feature | October 22, 2010

The Illinois Appellate Court this week upheld a lower court’s ruling in a defamation case, granting a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against a group critical of a high school basketball coach’s performance.

The appellate court found no merit to former Dixon High School boys basketball coach Steve Sandholm’s lawsuit accusing a local committee of defamation and false light, and his claim that Illinois’ anti-SLAPP statute -- designed to combat meritless suits known as strategic lawsuits against public participation -- is unconstitutional, according to court documents.

Sandholm filed a lawsuit in April 2008 after being removed from the head coaching position of the basketball team in large part due to local outcry about his coaching style. A group, composed mainly of the parents of the school’s athletes, created the Save Dixon Sports Committee to push for Sandholm’s removal, documents said.

Members of the committee argued that the coach “adversely performed his job, that his coaching philosophy was to verbally abuse, bully, discourage, and desecrate players, and that [he] needed to be fired,” according to court documents.

After the committee’s complaints to the school’s principal and superintendent received little response, it began publishing concerns to its now defunct website in February 2008. The group also discussed its dissatisfaction with Sandholm on a local radio station in March of that year, documents said.

The school board voted unanimously not to renew Sandholm’s contract as coach in April 2008, citing the difficulty he would have working in the environment created by the committee’s complaints, according to a 2008 article published on Sauk Valley Newspapers' website.

A lower court granted the committee’s motion to dismiss Sandholm’s lawsuit under Illinois’ Citizen Participation Act, finding that it had the effect of chilling free speech. The appellate court agreed.

The committee members' speaking publicly about their concerns “is part of the process of influencing the government to make a decision in a petitioner's favor. Defendants had a right to participate in this process,” the court said.

In his appeal, Sandholm also argued that Illinois’ anti-SLAPP law was unconstitutional because it violated his right to remedy injuries and the due process and equal protection clauses of the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions, according to court documents.

Specifically, Sandholm argued that the law unequally affected public employees.

“There is not a public employee in the state of Illinois . . . who can ever be protected from having their job interfered with under this statute,” said Stephen Fieweger, Sandholm’s lawyer. He voiced concerns that the court’s interpretation of what he considered to be an overly-broad statute opened the door for anyone to defame a public employee free of consequences.

However, the court found “that the Act provides a qualified privilege, granting more protection for speech than the common law provides, when the speech occurs in the exercise of the right to participate in government,” and that a public employee could also use the law to shield themselves from a similar lawsuit. Therefore, the court ruled, Sandholm’s rights under the Illinois constitution were not violated.

Fieweger said that he began a campaign in 2008 to have the act altered but has not garnered any support from Illinois legislators. He plans to file a petition to appeal Sandholm's case to the Illinois Supreme Court.