(CN) – An Illinois court should not have used the state’s anti-SLAPP law to dismiss a basketball coach’s defamation case against the committee that got him booted off a high school team for alleged bullying, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled.
Steve Sandholm was the head basketball coach at Dixon High School and later became athletic director. A group of people unhappy with Sandholm’s coaching style and performance created the Save Dixon Sports Committee to get Sandholm fired.
Sandholm finally lost his coaching job after his 10th season in 2008. He sued the committee for defamation in a 25-count complaint, citing an article written on the committee’s website that called him an abusive coach who bullied and humiliated his players.
Committee member Richard Kuecker, one of 13 defendants in the lawsuit, posted the letter titled “Hostages in the Gym,” which was republished on the Northern Illinois Sports Beat website.
Committee members also took their complaints to the airwaves, leveling similar accusations against Sandholm on WIXN-AM radio.
Sandholm also complained about a letter the committee sent to a school board member, accusing Sandholm of making demands of his players that “bordered on slavery.”
Committee members successfully moved to dismiss, arguing that they were protected by the Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) Act.
The Illinois Court of Appeals agreed in October 2010, but the state Supreme Court revived the case since the committee’s free-speech rights had not been violated.
“Plaintiff’s claims do not in any way resemble a strategic lawsuit intended to chill participation in government or to stifle political expression,” Justice Anne Burke wrote for the court.
“It is apparent that the true goal of plaintiff’s claims is not to interfere with and burden defendants’ free speech and petition rights, but to seek damages for the personal harm to his reputation from defendants’ allegedly defamatory and tortious acts,” she added.
The court nevertheless rejected Sandholm’s claim that the Illinois anti-SLAPP law is unconstitutional.