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Coach's suit vs. Dixon parents likely to set precedent

February 8, 2011
Genoa-Kingston High School

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Where do the protections of citizens end, and the rights of public figures begin?

That's a question the Illinois Supreme Court is likely to answer when it hears a former Dixon high school basketball coach's lawsuit against parents who publicly called for his firing.

Attorneys on both sides of the argument agree the decision will set precedent.

"I think that's why the Supreme Court took it," said Stephen Fieweger, the Moline attorney for Steve Sandholm.

Sandholm lost his job as coach of the Dixon varsity boys basketball team in April 2008, after some players' parents organized a campaign to get him fired. Parents said Sandholm verbally abused his players.

Sandholm sued 10 parents and a local radio station.

But two courts - first a circuit court in July 2009, then an appellate court last October - have ruled that those named in the civil suit were protected by the Citizen Participation Act, a law designed to encourage participation in democracy.

Fieweger argued that the act deprived Sandholm of his constitutional right to remedies for his injuries and violated his rights to due process and equal protection.

Out of 343 petitions, Sandholm's case is one of only 10 the Supreme Court announced last month it will hear this year.

"That's pretty typical," said Joe Tybor, the court's press secretary. "The court ordinarily chooses to review between 4 and 6 percent of cases submitted."

No hearing date has been scheduled.

At the heart of the case is the Illinois Citizen Participation Act, enacted in 2007, which protects citizens from being sued for participating in government as long as their statements are made with a genuine goal of procuring a favorable government action.

The act commonly is referred to as Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), and dozens of other states have enacted similar laws.

The same month he was fired as basketball coach, Sandholm sued parents Richard and Ardis Kuecker, Glen Hughes, Michael Venier, Tim Oliver, Dan Burke, David Deets, Mary Mahan-Deatherage, Robert Shoemaker and Neile Petersen. He also sued NRG Media, the parent company of local radio station WIXN, and Al Knickrehm, the station's general manager.

The parents published a Web page, spoke on the radio and petitioned the school board against Sandholm.

About a year after being fired as a coach, Sandholm was removed from the athletic director's post. He was assigned to an administrative position, and is set to retire this spring.

Stephenson County Judge David L. Jeffrey dismissed Sandholm's lawsuit in Lee County in July 2009. The 2nd District Appellate Court also rejected it last October.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Fieweger wrote that the Appellate Court decision should be reversed because the Citizen Participation Act does not strike a balance between the rights of people to file lawsuits for injuries, and the constitutional rights of people to petition.

"[The SLAPP] law is completely unconstitutional," Fieweger said. "It deprives all public employees ... from ever having the right of remedy in the courts if somebody goes after their job illegally."

Sterling attorneys Jim and Magen Mertes represent the Kueckers. They filed a response in December to Fieweger's petition to the Supreme Court.

Without the Citizens Participation Act, Jim Mertes said, citizens would be discouraged from voicing their opinions about a governmental employee for fear of being sued.

"It goes far beyond this lawsuit," he said. "Every case that involves a challenge to free speech is important."

"No matter what the Illinois Supreme Court decision is in this case," he said, "it will be cited for years to come."

Sandholm's suit is one of only four civil cases the state's high court will hear this year.

Fieweger has 35 days to file an amended complaint if he so chooses, and he's asked different organizations that might be affected by anti-SLAPP laws to provide "friend of the court" briefs.

Sandholm also filed suit in federal court in May 2009 against the Dixon School District and board members Jim Hey, Tom Balser, Woody Lenox and Carolyn Brechon. Sandholm says he was denied due process and claims age discrimination - a younger man was hired to replace him as athletic director.

The suit seeks more than $6 million in damages. The case is scheduled for a hearing Feb. 18.

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