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Court broadens protection in first anti-SLAPP case

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled last week that public speech about building developers is protected under the state’s recently enacted…

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled last week that public speech about building developers is protected under the state’s recently enacted anti-SLAPP statute, setting a broad precedent for future cases.

In its first discussion of the Citizen Participation Act, the high court ruled 7-0 to reverse the trial and appellate court rulings that the defendant was not protected under the state anti-SLAPP law after he was sued by a Chicago developer for defamation. The act guards victims of SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, designed to silence citizens exercising their constitutional rights to speak out on public matters.

On July 10, 2007, defendant John Walsh attended a meeting at his local alderman’s office to discuss local problems with building developers renovating Walsh’s condo-heavy area of Chicago.

Walsh, the president of his condo community’s association, filed a fraud lawsuit in 2006 against the Wright Development Group, which was responsible for the conversion of his 22-story, 262-unit condo, according to the court opinion.

After the meeting, Wright spoke to a reporter from the Pioneer Press, a community newspaper that covers Chicago’s northern suburbs and is owned by Sun-Times Media LLC. He discussed his issues with the developer, including how his association had to take out a $1.8 million loan to pay for problems that ensued with his building, according to the court opinion.

After the Pioneer Press and Chicago Sun-Times published part of Walsh’s story in a 2007 story titled, “Condo boom creates glut of horror stories,” and referred to the Wright Development Group, the developer sued Walsh and the two newspapers for defamation. The company argued that it was not the true developer of the building, which, it alleged, Walsh knew at the time he made the statements.

In 2008, a trial court denied Walsh’s motion to dismiss the complaint under the anti-SLAPP statute, ruling, “it doesn’t immunize you from every step that you are ever going to take outside of the meeting,” according to the Supreme Court’s opinion. However, the trial court granted his motion to dismiss on other grounds. The appellate court dismissed Walsh's appeal, saying it was moot because he had already received his requested relief — dismissal of the suit — albeit not on anti-SLAPP grounds.

The Illinois Supreme Court opted to rule on the anti-SLAPP issue and, in so doing, broadened the scope of immunity for the newspapers, as well as citizens by protecting the statements these public participants make to the media about government action, said Damon Dunn, an attorney for the newspapers involved in the suit.

“What we’re doing is allowing newspapers to piggyback off their source’s immunity,” Dunn said. “You can go to the newspaper now and use that as a vehicle for addressing government action.”

Under the statute, Walsh will be awarded attorney’s fees and costs, which his attorney, Michael Franz, estimated to be up to $200,000.

“I think the Supreme Court ruling was dead on,” said Terrence Sheahan, another of Walsh's attorneys. “My client was exercising his First Amendment rights to speak out about issues of public concern, so we’re pleased that the Supreme Court found that his actions fell within the protective folds of the immunity found within the act.”

Joseph Cohen, an attorney for the developers, did not return phone calls as of press time, though he did say in a Chicago Tribune story: "It would appear that the Citizen Participation Act is now broad enough to protect one who makes a knowingly false statement from a defamation lawsuit so long as individual later denies knowing that the statement is false."

The Citizen Participation Act was enacted in August 2007 in response to the “disturbing increase” of SLAPP suits around the country, the court opinion said. About 24 states have passed similar anti-SLAPP legislation.

Illinois’ act seeks to end SLAPPs by “immunizing citizens from civil actions based on acts made in furtherance of a citizen’s free speech rights or right to petition government,” the opinion said.