Sandi Tenglin, an 81-year old widow, wrote a letter to the editor of the Northwest Herald which raised the hackles of then Democratic Party State’s Attorney candidate Jim Harrison.
Today the case was settled with the case being dismissed and Harrison paying $4,000 in attorney’s fees.
(Harrison has since dropped out of the race to tend to his seriously ill mother.)
He sued her.
Two attorneys rose to her defense:
- Philip A. Prossnitz
- Robert T. Hanlon
Prossnitz crafted a 15-page defense.
Here’s how he summarized Harrison’s complaint:
In his defamation lawsuit Plaintiff claims, inter alia, that one sentence by Defendant in a Letter to the Editor section of the Northwest Herald “constitutes defamation per se because it implies that Plaintiff committed the felonious criminal act of ‘bribery’ of a public officer.” (Plaintiff’s Complaint, para.16)(Emphasis ours).
That one sentence reads:
“My recollection is that Mr. Harrison, after donating a large sum of money to Gary Pack’s campaign, was hired to do labor law on behalf of the county.”
Prossnitz argues that the ‘innocent construction” rule should apply:
Even assuming arguendo that the statements in the letter are false, donating a large sum of money to a political campaign is not illegal and being hired to do labor law on behalf of a county is not illegal.
For that matter, receiving a political favor from a friend is not illegal.
Applying the innocent construction rule to this cause, the Plaintiff’s Complaint at Law should be dismissed.
Later the attorney points out that Tenglin’s letter “does not fairly impute the commission of a crime.”
Therefore, the suit should be dismissed.
One of the suits quoted was from a candidate for the Illinois Supreme Court in Southern Illinois.
One of the findings at the appellate level follows:
“When a person runs for public office, he puts his character in issue so far as it relates to his fitness and qualifications for office; therefore, his conduct and actions are fair game for comment.”
Defendant Tenglin has made two statements which are statements of lawful, permissible conduct.
Even if the statements were false, they do not defame Plaintiff Harrison.
Prossnitz then moves on to whether his client had actual malice.
Plaintiff Harrison has failed to allege with specificity his allegations of actual malice or falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity. The constitutional freedoms of press and speech preclude a public official from recovering damages for defamation unless it can be proven that the statement was made with “actual malice.”
Prossnitz says Harrison’s pleading is deficient with regard to showing actual malice.
Finally he says Harrison “has failed to allege any damages with specificity.”
One case quoted ruled, “Allegations of damage to the reputation, emotional distress, and economic loss are insufficient to state a cause of action.”
The second attorney, Robert Hanlon took a different tact.
He said that the suit lacked merit because it was part of the political process.
There is a law called the Citizen Participation Act.
It was enacted to stop developers from suing neighbors who objected to zoning proposals.
The developers would try to intimidate neighboring land owners by suing them
As anyone who has ever been sued knows, lawyers cost money.
This act provides a defense for citizens who are exercising their First Amendment Rights.
Hanlon characterizes Harrison’s suit as a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (S.L.A.P.P).”
He argues, “For Plaintiff to actually plead that there is no other innocent construction of the statement other than an allegation of bribery, he would implicitly admit that he actually did engage in bribery because the two separate facts are undeniably true.”
Hanlon calls it “the ‘Catch 22’ of Plaintiffs own malice hubris and arrogance directed at a little old lady.”
He points out,
“based upon the Plaintiff’s own complaint, the Plaintiff has admitted that the complaint is about matters that relate to the petitioning of Government…
“There can be no clearer petitioning of government as that term is used in the CPA than in an appeal to voters to vote against a candidate, especially one that seeks to suppress commentary about him.”
Unlike the other lawyer’s pleading, Hanlon’s asks for attorney’s fees and costs, which the act allows.
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Reviewing Hanlon’s arguments reminds me that State Rep. Jack Franks sponsored the Citizen Participation Act. It may be his most significant legislative accomplishment.
If I remember correctly, it was stimulated by a suit from a Richmond developer against citizens opposing the development.