Court overturns ruling against NEIU professor in defamation case
BY SANDRA GUY Staff Reporter September 17, 2013 4:34PM
Updated: October 19, 2013 7:17PM
An Illinois Appellate Court unanimously overturned a lower court’s ruling against a Northeastern Illinois University professor in a defamation case that raises freedom-of-speech issues in higher education.
Loretta Capeheart, a tenured justice studies professor, sued the university five years ago claiming defamation and suppression of her freedom of speech after a former vice president allegedly falsely accused her of having had stalking charges filed against her by a student.
The former vice president, Melvin Terrell, now retired, allegedly made the stalking statement at a faculty meeting while discussing the arrests of student anti-CIA demonstrators whom Capeheart, an anti-war activist, had publicly supported.
The university claimed it was immune from slandering Capeheart under an Illinois law that protects individuals from being sued by “powerful interests” so that people can publicly disagree with those interests without fearing reprisal in court.
The Illinois law is aimed at preventing well-financed corporations and corrupt government officials from filing lawsuits, known as SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation), to intimidate people from speaking out against abuses.
The Appellate Court ruled Monday that Terrell failed to show that Capeheart’s lawsuit was a SLAPP, that Capeheart doesn’t seek millions of dollars as in a classic SLAPP scenario and that Capeheart’s lawsuit “does not appear to be intended to prevent Terrell from participating in government or to interfere with his rights of petition or free speech, but rather to seek damages for the personal harm to her reputation from the alleged defamatory statement.”
In June 2012, Cook County Judge Randye Kogan had dismissed Capeheart’s lawsuit.
After Kogan’s decision, Northeastern claimed that Capeheart owed $88,000 in legal costs and fees. The appellate court decision threw out the legal fees.
Capeheart said Tuesday that she is “thrilled the court overturned the prior decision because it was such a perversion of the anti-SLAPP legislation.”
She added, “I hope there will be a positive resolution to the whole case.”
She had claimed Terrell wrecked her chances of becoming department chairwoman and winning a faculty award.
The case is expected to go to trial in Cook County Circuit Court but the university could try to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
A university spokeswoman said the school is evaluating the decision and weighing its options.
“The university will continue to defend itself in this litigation because Dr. Capeheart’s First Amendment rights were not violated nor was she subjected to retaliation,” the university said in a statement on Tuesday.