Panel: Chicago aldermanic candidate's defamation suit sought to chill blogger's political speech rights

By Jonathan Bilyk | Nov 3, 2014


A state appeals panel has blocked a Chicago aldermanic candidate from renewing her defamation suit against a blogger who published articles questioning her residency and which she argued implied she had committed a crime by attempting to claim tax exemptions for both property in the city and in the southwest suburbs.

The First District Appellate Court last week upheld the ruling of Cook County Associate Judge William E. Gomolinski, who dismissed the lawsuit political candidate and real estate businesswoman Anna Goral brought against blogger Joseph Kulys after determining it was meritless and intended to serve as retaliation against Kulys in an attempt to thwart his right to engage in political speech.

Justice James R. Epstein wrote the Oct. 30 opinion. Justices James Fitzgerald Smith and William Henry Taylor II concurred.

The panel's ruling stems from Goral’s action, first brought against Kulys in May 2011.

Earlier that year, Goral had sought to unseat the incumbent, Alderman Michael R. Zalewski, in Chicago’s 23rd Ward, on the city’s southwest side near Midway Airport.

During the campaign that spring, Kulys published articles on his website raising questions over Goral’s residency. Specifically, Kulys used his blog to note Goral, a real estate investor, owned property in the city and in southwest suburban Palos Hills.

In candidate paperwork, Goral listed her address as a home on West Archer Avenue in the 23rd Ward. But Kulys said on his blog that as recently as 2009, Goral also had claimed the homeowner’s exemption on the property taxes she owed on the Palos Hills property, reducing her taxes on that property by about $1,500.

In his article, Kulys said the information would require Goral to prove where she lives, as election law could invalidate her candidacy for the Chicago City Council, while tax law could carry penalties if she claimed a homeowner’s exemption she was not entitled to.

“If she lives in Palos Hills, she is not qualified to run for alderman of Chicago’s 23rd Ward,” Kulys wrote on his blog. “If she lives in Chicago, then she may be in violation of state law.”

After Goral lost the election, losing by about 3,000 votes and falling less than 500 votes short of forcing a runoff election against Zalewski, she filed a defamation suit over the articles, which she claimed were essentially a political hit run by Kulys on behalf of Zalewski, who Goral described as a friend of Kulys’.

Ultimately, the trial judge granted Kulys’ request to throw out Goral’s suit under the Illinois Citizen Participation Act, which bars lawsuits from political office holders, candidates and others seeking to chill or silence constitutionally protected political speech.

The appeals panel last week backed the lower court’s dismissal, saying Kulys’ article did not cross the line from merely questioning whether a crime may have occurred, to imputing or declaring Goral had broken the law.

“Defendant (Kulys) noted that if plaintiff lived in Palos Hills, she was ineligible to run for alderman, and if plaintiff lived in Chicago, she may be violating state law in obtaining a homestead exemption for her Palos Hills home,” Epstein wrote for the panel.

Further, the justices determined Goral’s suit was little more than retaliation against Kulys for damaging her aldermanic campaign and attempting to silence him in advance of her forthcoming campaign for Illinois state representative in 2012.

Goral is circulating petitions to again place her name on the ballot to challenge Zalewski for alderman in the 23rd Ward in February, according to a campaign website and Facebook page.

The evidence in the case, the justices said, “strongly suggests that plaintiff’s suit was designed to prevent defendant from further exercising his right to speak about plaintiff’s candidacy, rather than to seek recompense for defendant’s acts.”

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