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Thursday, September 19, 2013

No Immunity for Statements at a Public Meeting

A university professor filed a lawsuit against the former vice president of student affairs alleging that statements made by the defendant at a meeting of the university's faculty council for student affairs were defamatory held to address issues resulting from recent campus protests opposing CIA recruitment on campus.  Capeheart v. Terrell, 2013 IL App (1st) 122517.   At the council meeting, the professor alleged that a student had circulated a flyer accusing her of organizing recent protests.  The defendant responded that the student had filed a stalking complaint against the professor  with campus police. Although the student had filed a statement with police alleging that the professor had chased her down while she was handing out information, no formal stalking complaint had been filed.  That statement served as the basis for the professor's complaint against the defendant.
The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming he was immune under the Illinois Citizen Participation Act (commonly referred to as SLAPP) because the defamation and retaliation claims were filed in response to his exercise of his constitutional rights to free speech and participation in government - in this case, his statements made at a public meeting of the faculty council.  The circuit court granted his motion to dismiss, finding that the defendant's statement was made during a debate over police action on campus and was "genuinely aimed at procuring a government action to resolve the situation."  The court also awarded the defendant a portion of his attorneys' fees as a prevailing party.
On appeal, the appellate court disagreed with the circuit court on the issue of whether the professor's defamation lawsuit constituted a SLAPP suit that would be subject to dismissal.  The appellate court determined first that the defendant was not automatically immune simply because he spoke at a government meeting.  Second, the court held that the professor's lawsuit did not appear to be intended to prevent the defendant from participating in government or interfere with his speech rights, but instead was to seek damages for the personal harm to her reputation. Finally, the court determined that the professor's lawsuit was not meritless because there was no stalking complaint filed against the professor as alleged by the defendant.  As a result, the appellate court reversed the motion to dismiss, sending the case back to the circuit court for the plaintiff to establish her defamation claim.


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