Faculty free speech advocates gained a victory Monday when an Illinois appeals court overturned a lower court’s ruling that Northeastern Illinois University was protected by state anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) laws in a defamation suit brought by a professor who alleged retaliation for her activism on campus. In its opinion, the court said that the university “does not refute any essential element” of Loretta Capeheart’s claims of defamation, including that a university administrator had said she “stalked” a student on campus. The court also found that the university failed to meet its burden of proof that that Capeheart’s case was a SLAPP, under the Illinois Citizens Participation Act.
Capeheart’s supporters, including the American Association of University Professors, have said that the act was designed to protect individuals from more powerful institutions, and that Northeastern Illinois’ defense was turning it on its head. The ruling reinstates Capeheart’s initial lawsuit against the university, which includes claims that she was denied a department leadership position for backing students who protested the Central Intelligence Agency and for publicly criticizing administrative spending. In an e-mail, Capeheart, who is still a tenured of professor justice studies at Northeastern Illinois, said “we are thrilled that the appeals court did not allow for the perversion of the act.”
A university spokeswoman said via e-mail that Northeastern Illinois is evaluating the decision and "weighing its options."
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