Illinois SLAPP Stories
Sued for Speaking Out in Illinois
- In perhaps the most well-known SLAPP, Oprah Winfrey was sued in 1996 by Texas cattle ranchers after a show called “Dangerous Food,” in which she interviewed experts on mad cow disease, and said she would never eat another hamburger. After several cattlemen complained that the show might cause their business to suffer, Winfrey actually aired another show a week later to reiterate that no mad-cow had ever been found in the U.S., and to reassure viewers that cattlemen taking measures to protect the health of cattle and consumers. Despite the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association personal thanks to Winfrey for the subsequent show, the cattlemen moved forward with a lawsuit against Winfrey, alleging more than $12 million in damages for violations of the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act, and the torts of business disparagement, defamation, negligence, and negligence per se. Texas did not have an anti-SLAPP law at the time, so Winfrey fought the SLAPP in trial for six weeks before a jury found in her favor. In 2000, the U.S. Fifth Circuit affirmed the ruling. Engler v. Winfrey, 201 F.3d 680 (2000).
- In July 2009, the former tenant of a Chicago apartment complex who is involved in a class action lawsuit against the management company for violations of Chicago housing law, sent a tweet to her network of twenty people, commenting: “You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s OK.” Based on the comment, the realty company sued her for defamation, alleging $50,000 in damages, in Illinois state court. When asked about the lawsuit, Jeffrey Michael, whose family runs the company said: “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.” He later apologized for that comment, but the suit is ongoing. Horizon Group Management, LLC v. Bonnen, No. 2009L008675.
- In 2007, the Pro Life Action League sued Illinois Planned Parenthood for defamation over statements Planned Parenthood’s CEO, Steve Trombley, made in the midst of an intense and robust public debate between Planned Parenthood and pro-life groups while Planned Parenthood was establishing a clinic in Aurora. In response to criticism from the pro-life groups, Trombley sent letters to city and county officials, and published open-letter ads to officials in the local paper, saying in part that some pro-life groups had a “well documented history of advocating violence.” The Pro Life Action group and several others sued Trombley for defamation. The court threw out significant portions of the suit in the first published decision under the Illinois anti-SLAPP law, Scheidler v. Trombley (Ill. 2007).
- In 2004, the American Academy for Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) filed a lawsuit in Illinois circuit court against Professor S. Jay Olshansky of University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University. The suit alleged that the two professors had engaged in “defamatory conduct” and interfered with A4M’s business and economic advantage. Examples of interfering conduct included Olshansky’s granting A4M a “silver fleece” award — a designation meant to shame medical professionals who claim they have invented ways to reverse aging. The suit also alleged that at a 2004 A4M conference, Olshansky left a bottle of vegetable oil labeled “snake oil” for the plaintiffs. A4M alleged $120 million in damages, and Olshansky responded by filing a countersuit. In 2006, A4M agreed to drop its suit if Olshansky dropped his. American Academy for Anti-Aging Medicine v. Olshansky (Cook County Court).
- In a case so egregious it resulted in sanctions against the plaintiff, the development company Westfield Partners sued a group of homeowners that had petitioned for a zoning decision that affected Westfield’s development plans. Westfield had purchased land in Wayne Township, which it hoped to develop with access via a certain road. Residents of the road opposed its use and filed a petition to have the road determined to be non-public. After a public hearing, the township agreed and the road was classified as such. Westfield filed suit in federal court against the homeowners on allegations of conspiracy to deprive of due process, interference with prospective economic advantage, and slander, seeking $4 million in damages. The court called Westfield’s attempt to lay the blame for his failure to attend the hearing at the feet of defendants “nothing short of incredible,” and said that his “entire complaint against the defendants [was] based upon nothing more than defendants’ exercise of their right, under the [F]irst [A]mendment, to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Westfield Partners, Ltd. v. Hogan, 744 F. Supp. 189 (1990).