On June 19, 2012 attorneys working under the direction of Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) extracted from Cook County Judge Randye Kogan a decision granting their VP Melvin Terrell and the university immunity from defamation claims using the Illinois Citizen Participation Act (CPA). The act was meant to protect citizens from being sued by powerful interests for speaking out in public forums. This ruling stands the CPA on its head granting immunity to a powerful interest in attacks on a citizen in response to her voicing an opinion on an issue of public concern.
Our ability as citizens to influence governmental decisions has been revoked. Instead, immunity has been granted to government officials to indiscriminately exercise their authority to crush any citizens who dare to oppose them.
Capeheart was attempting to influence the university’s decision to arrest peaceful protesters when she was viciously slandered by VP Terrell. The CPA was not intended to protect such abuses, it was intended to protect citizens such as Capeheart, not to punish, nor to bankrupt them as NEIU is intending. The ruling in Capeheart’s case prevents judicial redress for any slander by a government official against a citizen because of the extreme threat of liability for the government’s legal tab.
This decision will negatively impact upon attempts to secure national legislation commonly called anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation). It may also be affect citizens of states which currently have anti-SLAPP legislation in place. Support the spirit and intent of anti-Slapp laws by signing the letter to Illinois legislators demanding that they stop this perversion of the law.
Stop the perversion of Illinois' Citizens Protection Act
Dear Sen. Cullerton and Rep. Franks:
I am writing to both of you because you are the original sponsors of the Illinois Citizen Participation Act (CPA). I believe that you should be aware of how your groundbreaking legislation has been undermined by the actions of one of the state institutions that you oversee, namely, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU).
I am grateful for the important protections that the 2007 CPA afforded Illinois citizens to safeguard their right to intervene in government and public life. Illinois legislators recognized the significance of the CPA by overwhelmingly approving it without a single vote of opposition in either chamber. As the CPA states, “The threat of SLAPPs [Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation] significantly chills and diminishes citizen participation in government, voluntary public service, and the exercise of these important constitutional rights. This abuse of the judicial process can and has been used as a means of intimidating, harassing, or punishing citizens and organizations for involving themselves in public affairs. It is in the public interest and it is the purpose of this Act to strike a balance between the rights of persons to file lawsuits for injury and the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government.”
Unfortunately, on June 19th, 2012 the legal counsel of NEIU successfully secured a decision in the case (12L4115) of Professor Loretta Capeheart v. Dr. Melvin Terrell (former NEIU Vice President) in which the CPA was used to give Dr. Terrell immunity against the defamation claims of Prof. Capeheart, and to compel her to pay the unrestrained legal expenses of NEIU.
In a perversion of the CPA, legislation that was enacted to protect the rights of individual citizens against powerful economic and political interests (e.g., the government itself), an individual citizen, Prof. Capeheart, was presented by NEIU’s lawyer as the powerful interest, while a high-level official at a public university was assigned the role of the aggrieved citizen supposedly prevented from participating in government by her suit. In other words, the CPA can now be used to penalize with onerous legal expenses any citizen who tries to defend herself against defamation and slander in the courts. This is precisely the sort of “participation-chilling,” SLAPPing behavior that the CPA was intended to discourage. The legislation you sponsored and worked hard to pass has been turned on its head.
Please tell the administration of NEIU to stop destroying the spirit of the CPA, to stop using it as a shield that deprives and penalizes Prof. Capeheart for exercising her right to petition, and to allow her to have her day in court.