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Court Applies SLAPP Statute in Case involving Parents and Former Employee

K-12 Education Publications

An Illinois Appellate Court recently held that because a group of citizens were “participating in government” when they demanded the local school district remove a basketball coach from his position, they were protected from being sued for making defamatory statements criticizing the coach’s conduct.  In Sandholm v. Kuecker, a former high school basketball coach brought a lawsuit against a group of citizens who started a campaign to have the coach removed as basketball coach and athletic director due to their disagreement with his coaching style. After the Dixon School District Board of Education initially declined to remove the coach from his positions, the citizens posted a letter online that allegedly made defamatory and false statements about the coach, including statements that he badgered, humiliated and bullied players and was excessively abusive. 

After the lawsuit was filed, the citizens asserted that the Illinois Citizen Participation Act (Act), 735 ILCS 110/1 et. seq., barred the coach’s claims against them because their statements were made in the course of participating in their local government.  The Act protects citizens from liability for claims based on their act(s) taken in furtherance of their rights of petition, speech, association or to otherwise participate in government. So long as statements are made with the genuine aim at procuring a favorable government action, the Act protects citizens from liability for making such statements. Typically, this type of law, referred to as an Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute, applies to cases in which a developer sues a group of citizens for “intentional interference with prospective business” after the citizens oppose the developer’s plan and petition to have the local government stop the developer in some way.   Sandholm is the first case where Illinois’s Anti-SLAPP law has been applied to a case involving a group of citizens urging a school district to take action.

The Illinois Appellate Court announced a two-part test to determine whether the Act protects citizens’ particular statements or actions. First, the court considered whether objective persons could have reasonably expected to procure a favorable government outcome through a public campaign like the citizens’ campaign against the coach.  If the answer was no, then the court undertakes the second step of the analysis and considers whether the citizens’ subjective intent was not to achieve a government outcome but rather to interfere with or harass the plaintiff by using the governmental process.  In this case, the citizens’ acts ultimately resulted in the coach’s removal from his positions. Thus, the court found objective persons could have reasonably expected that his removal would result from their actions. Finding that a school district’s decision to dismiss an employee is a “government process” under the Act, the court held that the citizens acted in furtherance of their rights to participate in government with the goal to obtain favorable government action. Because the coach failed to prove that the citizens’ acts were not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, the court dismissed the coach’s claims against the citizens based on the Anti-SLAPP law.

Districts should consider this case when dealing with issues involving citizen and community participation at school board meetings and other school functions. Although citizens may now be protected from liability for defamatory speech against a school staff member, citizens will not be protected from making such remarks if it is not for the genuine purpose of achieving some governmental action.