Eric Scheidler and his legal team after an August 22 hearing in the libel case (from left): Jason Craddock, Eric, Thomas Brejcha and Peter Breen
Ever since the filing of NOW v. Scheidler way back in 1986, the Pro-Life Action League has been at the forefront of the fight to defend the civil rights of pro-life activists. Through more than twenty years of court battles, including three trips to the Supreme Court, the League foiled the abortionists and their radical feminist allies in their attempt to use the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act as a weapon against peaceful pro-life activism.
Now they’re at it again, this time trying to warp an Illinois law meant to protect grassroots activists from bullying developers into a license to lie about the Pro-Life Action League—including lies about the NOW v. Scheidler case itself.
Planned Parenthood Libels the League
In September 2007, facing allegations that they defrauded the people of Aurora, Illinois in the course of building a massive abortuary there, Planned Parenthood of Illinois CEO Steve Trombley repeatedly lied to the people, the press and elected officials about the League’s record of non-violence, declaring that we have a “well-documented history of advocating violence”. These lies were repeated in letters to the mayor and city council of Aurora and in advertisements in the Aurora Beacon News.
Planned Parenthood’s libelous ad in the Sept. 10, 2007 Aurora Beacon News depicted an abortion clinic destroyed by arson and falsely accused the League of having a “well documented history of avocating violence” (inset)
Planned Parenthood’s full-page ads were particularly scurrilous, including a picture of an abortuary destroyed by arson in Michigan in the 1980s, and repeating several of the false accusations leveled against my father during the 1998 NOW v. Scheidler trial. Not mentioned was the fact that Joe Scheidler was ultimately vindicated in the Supreme Court—twice.
Aurora Activists File Suit
Facing growing community opposition to the Aurora abortuary, built under a black cloud of fraud and deception, Planned Parenthood sought to defame their opponents, including many local people involved in grassroots pro-life activism for the first time. We could not allow them to get away with it.
So on October 1, 2007—the same day that Planned Parenthood was “cleared” by the City of Aurora in a bogus investigation into the allegations of fraud—I filed a libel suit in Kane County against Steve Trombley and Planned Parenthood. I was joined by 18 other plaintiffs, neighbors of mine who had helped lead the peaceful fight against Planned Parenthood. The case was assigned to Judge Judith Brawka.
Libel Case Heats Up
On March 14, Planned Parenthood finally responded to the libel suit with a Motion to Dismiss brought by Steve Trombley’s attorneys from the prestigious Sonnenschein law firm. The centerpiece of the Motion was the breathtaking claim that Steve Trombley’s defamatory statements about us are immune from claims of libel under Illinois’ Citizens Participation Act (CPA).
“Planned Parenthood was trying to turn [the Citizens Participation Act] completely upside-down, casting their pro-life opponents as the ‘bullies'”
The CPA was enacted in 2007, only a few weeks before I filed my libel suit. The law was designed to protect grassroots community activists from being bullied out of participating in the political process under the threat of costly lawsuits brought by powerful developers. Planned Parenthood was trying to turn this law completely upside-down, casting their pro-life opponents as the “bullies” using a libel suit to intimidate Planned Parenthood! Planned Parenthood’s use of the CPA was troubling, not only because of their warped interpretation of the law, but because the CPA requires a ruling within 90 days of filing, and the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff: I would have to show that Planned Parenthood’s statements are not protected under this law, and I’d only have a few weeks to do it. On top of that, if I were to lose, I would have to pay all of Planned Parenthood’s legal fees.
Planned Parenthood was arguing that, because they made their statements about the Pro-Life Action League in the course of seeking to procure favorable government action—being allowed to open their abortuary—nothing they said could be held against them.
Trombley Deposed, Plaintiffs Dropped
The case moved forward during the course of the spring and summer, with several appearances before Judge Brawka. Fortunately, Planned Parenthood had improperly filed their original Motion, and we were able to gain more time. A hearing date of August 22 was set, and my attorneys and I got to work putting together our case—including taking a deposition of Steve Trombley.
The deposition was held on July 28 in Sonnenschein’s luxurious offices, occupying the entire 78th floor of the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago—a setting which fittingly illustrated who really has the deep pockets and the power to intimidate.
For more than two hours, attorneys Jason Craddock and Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society probed Trombley with questions about his libelous letters and ads, with objections from Trombley’s attorneys over nearly every question.
Before the hearing, the other 18 plaintiffs elected to drop out of the case on advice of counsel, to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences should Planned Parenthood prevail. Here again the the CPA was totally backfiring: grassroots activists chose to drop a lawsuit against a big developer rather than risk financial ruin, precisely the situation this law was intended to stop.
Pro-Lifers Pack Court for Hearing
For the August 22 hearing the courtroom was packed with pro-life supporters, who silently prayed for justice during the lengthy proceedings. Thomas More Society attorneys Thomas Brejcha, Peter Breen and Jason Craddock argued that dismissing my libel suit on the basis of the CPA meant giving Planned Parenthood a “License to Lie”.
“…Planned Parenthood submitted Petition for Fees to the court, demanding that we pay the astonishing figure of $317,322.15 to cover their legal costs.”
Moreover, a ruling for Planned Parenthood could lower the tenor of public discourse throughout the state, providing anyone unscrupulous enough to do so a means to defame opponents with impunity, so long as they could construe their statement as some kind of appeal to government. Planned Parenthood’s interpretation of the law would effectively gut the libel laws of Illinois, laws established under the Illinois State Constitution’s recognition of a man’s right to his good name.
Planned Parenthood’s attorneys argued that our libel suit was an attack on Steve Trombley’s First Amendment rights, and that under the CPA, he cannot be sued for libel. They were sketchy on precisely what favorable government action Trombley was trying to procure, let alone how it helped his cause to accuse his pro-life opponents of being violent.
In fact, there was no action pending before the Aurora City Council, and ultimately the mayor claimed he had no choice but to allow Planned Parenthood to open. Through it all, the pro-life side was entirely peaceful and law-abiding.
Judge Sides with Planned Parenthood
On September 2, Judge Brawka issued her ruling, in favor of Planned Parenthood. Then on September 30, Planned Parenthood submitted Petition for Fees to the court, demanding that we pay the astonishing figure of $317,322.15 to cover their legal costs. Not only had Planned Parenthood been granted a “License to Lie”, but they expected us to pay them for it. What’s more, they insisted that all the plaintiffs who had dropped out of the case before the hearing be held liable for fees.
Reaction from the press to this ruling was favorable to the pro-life side, including an editorial in the Aurora Beacon News where the original libelous ad had appeared. Our task in the weeks and months ahead would be to convince the press and people of Illinois, and especially the trial lawyers, that this ruling could spell disaster for the tenor of political discourse in the state.
Judge Upholds Two Counts against Planned Parenthood
Meanwhile, the case against Planned Parenthood lives on. Even before the judge’s ruling, we had filed an amended complaint including four additional counts of libel and slander that were discovered during the investigation leading up to the August 22 hearing.
As my legal team and I pursued these additional counts, we also began working toward an appeal of the September 2 ruling, as well as a response to Planned Parenthood’s outrageous fee demands. Retired Illinois Judge Bob Boharic was brought on the team to help defend the dismissed plaintiffs over the fee petition issue.
The attorneys working on the case, headed by Thomas Brejcha of the Thomas More Society believe we will have a strong case on appeal. This confidence was bolstered on December 10, when Judge Brawka allowed two of the additional counts against Steve Trombley to stand—one count of libel and one count of slander—even while dismissing two additional counts under the CPA.
Not only does this mean that we have two counts against Planned Parenthood to move forward on, but the difficulty of assessing precisely why the very same statement can be immune from libel sometimes but not at other times illustrates how confusing and potentially dangerous the Judge’s dismissal of the other counts really is.
A hearing on the fee petition is scheduled for January 30, though Planned Parenthood, alarmed by having lost on two counts, is seeking to postpone it. But no matter what new tactics Planned Parenthood may devise, truth and justice will prevail in the end. Planned Parenthood’s lies will be exposed, and they will be held accountable before the law.