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Thursday, March 7, 2019

How Far Can a Citizen Go in Criticizing Government Officials?

The First Amendment protects a citizen’s right to petition the government for redress of grievances including the right to complain about the decisions and actions of government officials. At what point, however, do complaints stop being legitimate criticisms and begin to intentionally inflict emotional distress or constitute harassment and defamation? That question and others may come before an Illinois court soon in a case filed by school district officials against a persistent critic. 

On December 27, 2018, the Waukegan Community School District No. 60 board president, superintendent, and attorney filed a lawsuit against an individual who, they claim, persistently criticized them at board meetings, in e-mails, by phone, on Facebook, and face-to-face in public places. According to the plaintiffs, the criticisms consisted of dozens of false statements, threats, and related conduct. They seek $2,000,000 in damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with contract and business relations, harassment through electronic communication, fraud, defamation, false light, and invasion of privacy.

The defendant, a candidate for alderman in the City of Waukegan, claims the lawsuit is an “attempt to chill my speech based on my message” and that she has a First Amendment right to speak on matters as both a citizen and a taxpayer. 

Speech critical of the government has been the subject of numerous Supreme Court cases since 1900 especially during periods of heightened concern for public safety such as during war time and following 9/11. The use of Facebook and other social media sites to petition the government is a relatively new phenomenon, however, and this case may break new ground if it advances to trial.

You can read the complaint here.

Post Authored by David Warner, Ancel Glink


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