A blow to academic freedom
An Illinois court recently dealt a serious blow to one of the country's most pivotal legal battles for academic freedom. On June 19, Judge Randye Kogan dismissed a defamation suit brought by Professor Loretta Capeheart to challenge an attempt by her employer, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), to silence her. Adding to the severity of the decision, Judge Kogan may require Capeheart to pay the university's legal fees.
In a statement, the Justice for Loretta Capeheart Campaign explains what's at stake if the decision is allowed to stand.
THE ADMINISTRATION of Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) is petitioning a Cook County Court to demand NEIU Professor Loretta Capeheart pay them $80,000 in attorney's fees and costs.
On June 19 a Cook County judge upheld NEIU's use of the Illinois Citizens Participation Act to claim immunity for former Vice President Melvin Terrell. In 2008, Capeheart filed charges against Terrell for defamation of character.
The Citizens Participation Act (CPA) was developed to punish large and wealthy institutions attempting to use courts to silence individuals who speak out on abuses of power and other discriminatory policies. However, in this instance the CPA has been used to perform the very opposite. Instead of protecting Professor Capeheart's right to question administrative decisions at a public university, the CPA has been perverted to protect the very powerful NEIU administration and one of its leading representatives.
Visit the Justice for Loretta Capeheart website for updates on the case. Post a link to the website on Facebook and Twitter, and send it to your friends and coworkers. Sign the petition calling for justice for Loretta.
Send e-mails, phone calls and letters to NEIU President Sharon K. Hahs, S-Hahs@neiu.edu, 773-442-5400 and President Sharon K. Hahs, 5500 N. St. Louis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625.
Support the campaign financially. You can make a donation to the legal fund via Paypal at the Justice for Loretta Capeheart website, or by sending a check to Thomas D. Rosenwein, Glickman, Flesch & Rosenwein, 230 W. Monroe St., Suite 800, Chicago, IL 60606, Memo: Loretta Capeheart Defense.
Show your solidarity by passing resolutions in your union, your faculty senate or other organization through which you can gain support. Send messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harold Washington College Professor, Héctor Reyes, described the dire impact this will have on the CPA:
This is precisely what the Illinois Citizen Participation Act was enacted to prevent. Yet NEIU got the court to use the CPA to sanction this outrage. If this decision is left to stand, the CPA has been shred to pieces, with the additional damage of granting government officials a license to crush any citizen with impunity.
North Central College Professor, Steve Macek, added:
The fees NEIU's lawyers are asking for are completely outrageous, given that they are only supposed to cover the CPA portion of the case. What is truly scandalous here is that the NEIU administration is prepared to spend $80,000 on legal fees to silence one of its own faculty members.
The fees NEIU is demanding Professor Capeheart pay are well beyond her financial means and designed to intimidate potential whistleblowers from stepping forward at a time of widespread upheaval and scandal at NEIU.
Since 2007 NEIU has shown it will go to any lengths to punish Professor Capeheart for challenging unethical actions of its leading personnel and discriminatory policies. Now, NEIU is demonstrating it is prepared to abuse its power further by destroying the CPA and gutting civil liberties.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE CPA is designed to protect individuals from the burden of legal costs by placing the costs on powerful institutions if it is found that the lawsuit is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" (SLAPP).
Bizarrely, NEIU has succeeded in claiming that the slander perpetrated by its vice president was "in pursuit of public participation" and that therefore Capeheart's lawsuit in defense of her reputation "SLAPPed" the VP. Therefore, according to NEIU, Capeheart should now be punished by being forced to pay their institutional legal fees.
This represents an outrageous perversion of the CPA that not only immunizes institutions wishing to publicly abuse any person pursuing public engagement, but prevents individuals from any legal defense without great risk of unbearable financial harm.
Professor Capeheart responded by saying:
My world was turned upside down in February of 2007, when NEIU Vice President Melvin Terrell falsely stated that I was the subject of a student complaint of stalking. This statement robbed me of my personal security and dignity.
But, the recent decision that my attempts to regain my dignity and security were frivolous attempts to silence public engagement will not only damage me personally, but my family and my community.
NEIU has used a law meant to protect someone just like me, someone wishing to have an impact on governmental policy, to turn me into a villain in need of punishment. This punishment robs my family of its future and my community of its rights to engage in public debate. It is frightening politically and personally. At this moment, I can't seem to untangle the personal and the political.
The Justice for Professor Loretta Capeheart Campaign will continue to organize support and solidarity to challenge the abuse of the CPA and NEIU's petition for legal expenses. In addition, the campaign will challenge NEIU's attempt to block an appeal of the judge's rejection of the defamation suit.
Professor Capeheart deserves justice and dignity. The outcome of her struggle will impact public participation, academic freedom for all educators, civil liberties, campus activism and the rights of public sector workers nationwide.