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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

One step forward in a Chicago legal battle

For the past several years, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) professor Loretta Capeheart has been fighting a legal battle with the university over academic freedom.
Professor Capeheart alleges that NEIU Vice President Melvin Terrell falsely stated in public that she had been the subject of a student complaint of stalking. Capeheart and her supporters believe she also may have been targeted by the university for supporting her union and the free speech rights of student protesters.
Last year, Illinois Judge Randye Kogan dismissed Capeheart's defamation suit against the university. NEIU, adding insult to injury, attempted to have Capeheart pay its legal fees using a provision of the Illinois Citizens Protection Act (ICPA)--a law designed to protect the weak from frivolous litigation of the powerful. This week, though, an appeals court dismissed NEIU's claim, opening the possibility, Capeheart told the Chicago Sun-Times, of "a positive resolution to the whole case." In a statement, the Justice for Loretta Capeheart Campaign explains the significance of the decision.
Loretta Capeheart 
Loretta Capeheart
WRITING THAT the university "does not refute any essential element" of Capeheart's claims, the Illinois Appellate Court for the First Judicial District overturned Judge Randye Kogan's June 2012 ruling. That decision ruled that Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) and its former vice president, Melvin Terrell, had immunity to publicly slander Professor Loretta Capeheart, because of the Illinois Citizens Participation Act (ICPA).
The ICPA was enacted to protect individual citizens from being sued by powerful interests who intend to use the courts to prevent these citizens from engaging in public discourse and actions that are in disagreement with these interests.
In 2008, Professor Capeheart filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming defamation and suppression of her freedom of speech by NEIU President Sharon Hahs, former Provost Larry Frank and former Vice President Melvin Terrell. In her claim, Dr. Capeheart argued that Terrell had slandered her in a public NEIU meeting by falsely accusing her of having had stalking charges filed against her by a student. Capeheart also claimed that NEIU officials had slandered and retaliated against her as a way to silence her.
In a perversion of the Illinois Citizens Protection Act, NEIU's attorney Pete Land claimed that Professor Capeheart is equivalent to a powerful interest who somehow prevented Melvin Terrell and "government from participating in government," by defending herself from slander. The university further claimed that Professor Capeheart must pay them over $88,000 in costs and fees.
This was clearly a perversion of the ICPA. The Appeals court wrote "the plaintiff's suit does not appear to be intended to prevent Terrell from participating in government or to interfere with his rights to petition for free speech." The court also noted that Capeheart is not seeking the "millions as in the classic SLAPP scenario." The case now returns to the lower court.
We hope that the sponsors of that legislation, state Sen. John Cullerton and Rep. Jack Franks, along with all others who support a democratic Illinois will join us in celebration. We further hope that the ICPA sponsors and others will join us in condemning the use of this legislation in attempts to silence and punish citizens of Illinois, like Professor Capeheart.
Professor Capeheart's case has gained national attention. In addition to professor Steve Macek's September 2012 article in Z Magazine, the Nation's sports editor Dave Zirin has also written about this case. The faculty union at Rutgers University passed a resolution supporting Professor Capeheart and approved financial assistance to cover her legal expenses; the faculty senates at the University of Texas-Austin and Harper College have also approved resolutions in her support.
Among those signing petitions in support of Dr. Capeheart are: Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union; and Bill Ayers, distinguished professor (retired) at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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