Illinois defamation suit not dismissible on anti-SLAPP

Rachel Bunn | Libel | Feature | January 24, 2012

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that a defamation suit filed by a high school basketball coach against about a dozen critics is not subject for dismissal under Illinois’ Citizen Participation Act, a statue aimed to prevent Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

The court ruled Friday that a lawsuit filed by former basketball coach Steve Sandholm against 13 defendants -- bloggers and a radio station -- that allegedly defamed him via highly critical posts on websites, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts in 2008, was not subject for dismissal by the anti-SLAPP statue because the suit does not try to impede constitutionally protected speech. Sandholm's critics accused him of verbally and emotionally bullying his students, according to the ruling.

Sandholm initially filed a defamation suit in 2008. The defendants claimed, among other things, that Sandholm's suit was a SLAPP because it was filed in response to their constitutionally protected petitioning activity -- namely, that they were petitioning the school board to replace Sandholm. SLAPP suits rarely succeed on the merits but are intended to bury the defendant in litigation costs. The costs of the litigation often silences them from speaking on a matter of public concern.

Sandholm, the court ruled, did not bring the lawsuit in order to interfere with the defendants’ rights to participate in the government, including freedom of speech and right to petition, but instead was seeking damages for reputational harm.

“If a plaintiff’s complaint genuinely seeks redress for damages from defamation or other intentional torts and, thus, does not constitute a SLAPP, it is irrelevant whether the defendants’ actions were ‘genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome,’” the opinion states. “Thus, plaintiff’s suit would not be subject to dismissal under the Act.”

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a sponsor of the Citizen Participation Act passed in 2007, said he supported the court’s ruling.

“My intent all along was to encourage people to have a voice and speak up on matters of civic importance,” he said. “This was never intended to be a blanket protection for spreading mistruths or outright lies. I think the court made the right decision.”

The court cited a similar decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court concerning the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statue. In that case, the court ruled a defendant must prove his or her right to petition has been infringed upon in order for a suit to be dismissed using the statue.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois — along with the Illinois Press Association, the Illinois Broadcasters Association and the Public Participation Project — submitted a friend of the court brief in support of the defendants.

Edwin Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, said the Citizen Participation Act was important for the protection of the right of Illinois citizens to fully participate in government without the fear of retaliation. However, at this time, it is unclear how the ruling of the Sandholm case will affect that protection, he said.

“It is an incredibly complicated decision and one that we are still trying to analyze as it relates to the future of the Act for citizens of Illinois,” Yohnka said. “I don’t think we fully know yet what the outcome will be.”