High School Basketball Coach Loses Defamation SLAPP Suit

On October 18, 2010, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of a high school basketball coach’s lawsuit for defamation, false light invasion of privacy and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage. The defendants had urged that plaintiff be removed from his positions as athletic director and coach in petitions to the school board, on the internet and in  radio broadcasts. The court found that the lawsuit violated the Illinois Citizen Participation Act (“CPA”) (735 ILCS 110/1 et seq.) and constituted a strategic lawsuit against public participation (“SLAPP”). Sandholm v Kuecker, et al. The statements at issue referred to Sandholm as “excessively abusive” and that he routinely bullied, humiliated and badgered players. The statements emanated from the defendants as the “Save Dixon Sports Committee.” One posting described plaintiff as a “psyco [sic]nut [who]talks in circles and is only coaching for his glory.” The post continued: “It is his twisted pshyco [sic] babble and his abuse of power that we have had enough of.”

In finding that the CPA barred plaintiff’s lawsuit, the court applied a two-part analysis emanating from City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc., to determine whether the defendants’ acts were “genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action.”  First, whether objective persons could have reasonably expected to procure a favorable government outcome through the campaign at issue. If so, the court does not consider defendants’ subjective intent. If, however, the objective inquiry is answered in the negative, the court considers whether defendants’ subjective intent was not to achieve a government outcome, but to interfere with plaintiff by using the governmental process itself.

The court found that the record demonstrated defendants’ repeated efforts to lobby the school board to remove plaintiff as athletic director and coach, even after the board initially denied their petition (the board ultimately reconsidered its ruling and removed plaintiff based upon the campaign).  The court referred to defendants’ internet postings and radio presentations as “part of the process of influencing the government to make a decision in petitioner’s favor” and described the campaign to remove plaintiff as “classic political speech.” Therefore, the court found that plaintiff did not disprove that objective persons in defendants’ position could reasonably believe that they could succeed in achieving their desired government outcome and it was unnecessary to consider the defendants’ subjective intent: “As the Act states, defendants are immune from liability, regardless of intent or purpose, except when not genuinely aimed at procurring favorable government action.” 735 ILCS 110/15. Significantly, the court found, that to constitute citizen participation protected by the CPA, the statements “did not need to be made within a petition or during a hearing, but needed only to be made within defendants’ participation in the government process, which includes acts of gaining public support to influence favorable government action.” Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s lawsuit and award of attorneys’ fees to the defendants.

Sandholm demonstrates that the Illinois Citizen Participation Act continues to be applied broadly to encompass not only direct requests for governmental action, but also statements directed to the public at large which may influence government action. The scope of the Act continues to develop on a case-by-case basis.

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