Today in Capeheart v. Terrell (2013 IL App (1st) 122517), an Appellate Court of Illinois overturned a state court’s previous ruling that NEIU (Northeastern Illinois University) officials were protected by Illinois’ anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law against a defamation suit by NEIU professor Loretta Capeheart. The appellate ruling reinstates Capeheart’s lawsuit, and means she is no longer liable for NEIU officials’ legal costs.
Capeheart, who is a member of the Illinois AAUP’s Committee A, has had a lengthy dispute with the NEIU administration after they denied her a merit raise and a faculty award, and prohibited her from being elected chair of her department. Capeheart had criticized the administration for its failure to recruit more Latino faculty and the arrest of students protesting the CIA.
The AAUP previously filed an amicus brief in the appeal over Capeheart’s lawsuit charging NEIU with punishing her for criticizing the administration, and a year ago, the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that initial court decision relying on the Garcetti case, which would have severely undermined faculty rights of free speech and shared governance.
This ruling today addresses a different lawsuit by Capeheart, in which she sued NEIU Vice President Melvin Terrell for defamation because he publicly falsely claimed that a student had filed “stalking” charges against her. In the initial state court ruling (now overturned), NEIU officials successfully invoked Illinois’ anti-SLAPP law to not only have Capeheart’s defamation lawsuit dismissed, but to make her responsible for their legal costs.
Anti-SLAPP laws, including the one in Illinois, were created to protect individuals from facing defamation suits from powerful corporations seeking to silence criticism (most notably, real estate developers). By allowing courts to dismiss unfounded defamation lawsuits and provide legal expenses, the goal was to level the playing field and encourage the freedom of speech of average people against wealthy opponents.
The initial ruling in the Capeheart case turned this logic on its head by allowing a powerful institution, NEIU, to claim this weak and vulnerable position, and seek to punish Capeheart for her lawsuit. If the original court ruling became a precedent, it would have had a devastating impact. It would have allowed big corporations almost complete immunity from defamation suits, since litigants who had suits dismissed under anti-SLAPP laws could be forced to pay the high legal fees of these companies.
In today’s ruling, the court relied on narrow grounds, noting that the anti-SLAPP law can only apply to “meritless, retaliatory SLAPP lawsuits” and Capeheart’s suit did not fit this description.