Judge: State Rep Drury yet to prove malice in defamation suit vs Proft over campaign ads

By Jonathan Bilyk | Sep 12, 2017

An Illinois state representative and Democratic candidate for governor has failed in another attempt to sue an Illinois conservative radio talk show host and political activist and his political organization for statements made in 2014 political advertisements, as a Cook County judge has again tossed the defamation lawsuit brought by State Rep. Scott Drury against Dan Proft and Liberty Principles PAC.

On Sept. 12, Cook County Circuit Judge Franklin Valderrama dismissed without prejudice Drury’s first amended complaint, leaving it to Drury to decide whether to continue to pursue the litigation he has chased in court for nearly three years.

Drury, of Highwood, first filed suit in 2014, as he neared the end of his campaign to win another term in office from the state’s 58th Legislative District, which includes a large swath of shoreline in southeastern Lake County, including the suburbs of Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Bannockburn and Highland Park.  

In that lawsuit, Drury accused Proft and Liberty Principles PAC, as well as his Republican opponent, Dr. Mark Neerhof, of Lake Forest, and Neerhof’s campaign organization of lying about Drury’s positions on an education funding bill then pending in the Illinois General Assembly.

That legislation, known as Senate Bill 16, would have reformed Illinois education funding, potentially cutting state funding to education in more affluent districts to redirect it to other, poorer communities – a move opponents said would unfairly benefit the city of Chicago.

While that bill ultimately died, similarly themed legislation was enacted this year by the General Assembly, creating a system of state education aid using “evidence-based” funding to decide where the money would go. Opponents similarly called that bill a “bailout” for the Chicago Public Schools, which they said had been fiscally mismanaged for decades.

Drury supported the initial version of the bill, but then changed his position, voting no on a compromise version needed to override a veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner. Echoing other Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Drury said he could not support a measure included in the legislation establishing tax credits to help fund a system of scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.

In the 2014 campaign, however, Proft and Liberty Principles funded ads on cable television and in direct mail pieces telling voters that Drury supported cutting funding for local schools in the district “by as much as 70 percent;” was in favor of sending the district’s “tax dollars to Chicago schools;” and “has put his Chicago Democrat Party bosses ahead of our schools.”

Upon publication of the mailer, Drury filed suit, alleging Proft and Liberty Principles had coordinated with Neerhof’s campaign to unfairly smear him, and asking the court to order them to pay for publishing false statements about him and his political positions.

Most of the lawsuit, however, was dismissed, as the judge said Drury, as a public figure and politician, needed to do more than demonstrate the statements were false. Rather, the judge said, Drury needed to show the defendants made the statements, knowing they were false and had still published them with “actual malice.”

The courts, however, dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, giving the state lawmaker a chance to refile his lawsuit.

However, Judge Valderrama said Drury’s latest attempt still falls short of demonstrating actual malice.

Specifically, the judge said Drury has yet to show the defendants did anything more than publish statements, which later turned out to be false, but which were statements of political opinion based on the facts available to them at the time.

“… The court finds that Drury fails to allege that the facts upon which Defendants relied to support the inference that formed the basis of their allegedly defamatory statements cast serious doubt as to the truth of those statements,” the judge wrote. “While Drury generally alleges that the facts upon which Defendants relied – Drury’s party affiliation, receipt of certain campaign contributions, and failure to sign a certain House resolution – support other inferences, the Court notes that Drury does not specifically identify what other inferences those facts support.

“Importantly, Drury also does not allege or identify how any other inferences that those facts support created substantial reason for Defendants to doubt the truth of their inference that gave rise to the alleged defamatory statements. Nor does Drury allege that Defendants had specific knowledge of any other facts that would cast doubt on the truth of the alleged defamatory statements or imply that Defendants had a high degree of awareness that statements were probably false.”

The judge said he believed Drury may yet be able to remedy these shortcomings, and granted Drury leave to file another amended complaint, if he so desires.

Drury is represented in the action by attorney Larry D. Drury, of Chicago.

Liberty Principles and Proft are represented by attorney Christine Svenson, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois General Assembly Illinois Representative Scott Drury (D-58th) Larry D. Drury Ltd. Liberty Principles PAC

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