Today the Illinois Supreme Court handed down a ruling [PDF] in Sandholm v. Kuecker, a libel case involving many of the same issues involved with my own libel suit against Planned Parenthood, Scheidler v. Trombley.
Both cases involve the Citizens Participation Act (CPA), enacted in 2007 to protect citizens from so-called “SLAPP” cases—”strategic lawsuits against political participation.” A SLAPP is a meritless lawsuit filed only to discourage free speech or protest activity. The plaintiff bringing the suit does not intend to win it in court, only to punish or intimidate the defendant by imposing the heavy costs of mounting a defense.
Background on the Two CPA Cases
In the Sandholm case, a former high school coach and athletic director, Steve Sandholm, sued a group of parents and a media company for libel and slander for statements they made during an ultimately successful effort to get him fired.
Sandholm’s case was dismissed by the trial court under the CPA, citing an earlier ruling by the judge in my case, Judith Brawka. Judge Brawka had accepted Planned Parenthood’s argument that the CPA creates a blanket immunity from defamation charges for anyone seeking favorable government action, regardless of whether the defamation charge has merit.
Planned Parenthood’s Steve Trombley in Aurora, IL in 2007 [Photo by J.T. Eschbach]
I had sued Planned Parenthood of Illinois and their CEO Steve Trombley over statements made in letters to the mayor and aldermen of Aurora, Illinois, and in full page ads in the local papers. The League was gaining traction opposing the opening of Planned Parenthood’s massive abortion center in Aurora, and Trombley declared that the League has a “well-documented history of advocating violence,” among other false, defamatory claims.
When Trombley refused to retract those statements, I filed my libel suit. Trombley was clearly trying to undermine the growing pro-life opposition to the Aurora abortuary by employing the usual tactic of demonizing pro-lifers. His lies simply had to be confronted.
Judges Find CPA Grants a “License to Lie”
However, Judge Brawka ruled that it didn’t matter whether Trombley deliberately defamed me and the League. Since he was seeking favorable government action—the issuance of an occupancy permit that would allow Planned Parenthood to open the Aurora center—he could not be sued for defamation. My lead attorney, Tom Brejcha of the Thomas More Society, called it a “License to Lie.”
The judge in the Sandholm case, citing Brawka’s ruling, likewise ruled that the CPA protected those trying to get Coach Sandholm fired from being sued for defamation.
When Sandholm appealed that ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals went even further, holding that the CPA “alters existing defamation law by providing a new, qualified privilege for any defamatory statements communicated in furtherance of one’s right to petition, speak, assemble, or otherwise participate in government … even with actual malice.”
Illinois Supreme Court Revokes “License to Lie”
My attorneys and I were encouraged when the Illinois Supreme Court accepted Sandholm’s appeal last year. The questions raised during oral arguments in September suggested that they could see the problems with the way the Sandholm’s judge—and, by extension, by extension, my judge—had interpreted the CPA.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, Sandholm author
In today’s unanimous opinion authored by Justice Anne Burke, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the CPA does not create blanket immunity from defamation suits for those seeking favorable government action:
[I]f the plaintiff’s intent in bringing suit is to recover damages for alleged defamation and not to stifle or chill defendants’ rights of petition, speech, association, or participation in government, it is not a SLAPP and does not fall under the purview of the Act.
The court utterly rejected the notion that the CPA was intended by the Illinois General Assembly to create a huge, major exception to existing defamation statutes:
[H]ad the legislature intended to radically alter the common law by imposing a qualified privilege on defamation within the process of petitioning the government, it would have explicitly stated its intent to do so.
I was particularly encouraged by the Court’s rejection of the “License to Lie” interpretation of the CPA:
It is clear from the express language of the Act that it was not intended to protect those who commit tortious acts [e.g. libel and slander] and then seek refuge in the immunity conferred by the statute.
So much for Planned Parenthood’s “License to Lie”!
Today’s Ruling a Big Win, but Final Victory Still a Ways Off
The court’s ruling in Sandholm v. Kuecker was everything my attorneys and I might have wished for. Now we have to go before Judge Brawka, and the first order of business will be to stop all proceedings on Planned Parenthood’s petition for fees. The CPA grants a successful defendant the right to recover attorneys fees, and Planned Parenthood is demanding an outrageous $494,405 from me.
Then we’ll ask the judge to set aside her earlier dismissal of my libel suit under the CPA. If she agrees—and it’s hard to see how she couldn’t in light of today’s Supreme Court ruling—then not only will that fee demand go in the trash, but I will finally be able to move forward with my libel suit and hold Planned Parenthood accountable for their malicious lies about their pro-life opponents in Aurora.
A long road lies ahead, but today’s ruling is a major victory not only for me but for all those in Illinois who value the right to protect their good names.