Illinois' high court: More defamation suits can go forward

January 20, 2012

A ruling issued Friday morning by the Illinois Supreme Court means more defamation lawsuits involving public figures can go forward. The decision could help a former candidate for Chicago alderman who sued his opponent over negative advertising.

RULING: Sandholm v. Kuecker et al.

Illinois courts have interpreted the 2007 Citizen Participation Act to apply to any statement aimed at getting the government to do what you want. If that was your true goal, you could not be sued for defamation.

But on Friday, the Illinois Supreme Court reined in the lower courts. The justices unanimously found that lawmakers were trying to prevent "only meritless, retaliatory" suits aimed at stopping people from speaking out. If a plaintiff who feels they've been defamed is "genuinely seeking relief for damages," the court said the suit can proceed.

The justices said that was true in the case at hand, in which a Dixon high school basketball coach, Steve Sandholm, sued members of his community who claimed he abused his players.

The decision could also help John Garrido, who ran for Chicago alderman and later sued labor unions and his opponent over campaign ads he alleges were lies. That case was thrown out using the Citizen Participation Act, leaving Garrido on the hook for the defendants' many thousands in legal fees. The court's ruling Friday essentially writes Garrido's appeal for him.

Garrido said Friday he was "definitely pleased with this decision" by the Supreme Court.

A spokesperson for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who sponsored the 2007 legislation, said the court's interpretation of the legislature's intent was correct.

"The Senate President wants to encourage civic engagement by protecting the rights of people to voice their concerns with public policies and actions," Rikeesha Phelon said in an email. "Those protections were not designed to...provide safe harbor for those who promote mistruths and lies. For that reason, [Cullerton] believes that the court made the right decision."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, however, is unlikely to be pleased by the ruling, as it was one of several groups who filed briefs in support of the Sandholm defendants. Asked for comment on the court's ruling, ACLU spokesman Edward Yohnka said the staff was still "reading and digesting the opinion."

"It is complicated and complicates the application of the CPA in Illinois," Yohnka wrote in an email.