Jonathan Bilyk Sep. 19, 2013, 10:16am

A college professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) who was falsely accused of stalking a politically opposite student has won the right to resume her defamation lawsuit against the school and a former administrator.

In an opinion issued Sept. 16, a panel of the First District Appellate Court overturned the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge Randye A. Kogan, who had dismissed the defamation suit Loretta Capehart brought against Melvin Terrell, the former vice president for student affairs at the university.

The opinion, which remanded the case back to the circuit court, was delivered by Justice Thomas E. Hoffman. Justices Joy V. Cunningham and Mathias W. Delort concurred.

The legal action stems from an argument between Terrell and Capehart that occurred during a faculty council meeting at NEIU in March 2007.

At that time, Capehart questioned Terrell over the manner in which the campus police had handled a student protest over the presence of Central Intelligence Agency recruiters on the university’s campus.

During the controversial protests, two students were arrested. The arrested students were members of the NEIU Socialist Club, to which Capehart serves as adviser.

Shortly after the protests, another student who had worked in Terrell’s office passed out leaflets on campus, in which Capehart was accused of “organizing the protest and creating chaos on campus.”

After she asked questions of Terrell concerning the events surrounding the protest, Capehart alleged that Terrell said the student who passed out the leaflets in opposition to the protest had filed a “stalking complaint” against her.

The student, however, had not filed such a complaint, but instead told police that Capehart had attempted to confront the student while the student “was handing out information regarding (Capehart’s) group’s discrepancies between beliefs and actions.”

In March 2008, Capehart filed suit in federal court against Terrell, as well as two other school officials, claiming that Terrell defamed her and school officials violated her free speech rights.

Terrell retired from NEIU in December 2008 and a federal judge dismissed that suit in February 2011.

A month later, Capehart filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Terrell and the other NEIU officials, again asserting defamation and arguing the university had retaliated against her for exercising her free speech rights.

In response, Terrell and the NEIU officials asked the court to dismiss the suit. Terrell argued that Capehart’s action had been brought in retaliation against him for exercising his rights to free speech in a governmental setting.

The circuit judge agreed with Terrell’s argument, and dismissed the case.

Capehart then appealed.

The appellate court, however, sided with Capehart, finding that, while Terrell’s accusation of stalking was made during a meeting in a governmental setting, that setting was not enough to protect him against liability for a potentially defamatory statement.

“Here, the plaintiff’s suit does not appear to be intended to prevent Terrell from participating in government or to interfere with his rights of petition or free speech, but rather to seek damages for the personal harm to her reputation from the alleged defamatory statement,” Hoffman wrote in the opinion.

Further, the panel held, “Terrell does not refute any essential element of her defamation claims.”

And Hoffman wrote that the facts of the case, including Capehart’s decision to wait a year after the incident to file suit and her decision to seek $500,000 in damages rather than millions of dollars meant the court “could not necessarily infer that the plaintiff’s suit was meritless, retaliatory or intended to prevent Terrell from exercising his constitutional rights.”

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