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Loretta Capeheart v. Sharon K. Hahs

February 14, 2011

LORETTA CAPEHEART, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SHARON K. HAHS, LAWRENCE P. FRANK AND MELVIN C. TERRELL, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Blanche M. Manning

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Loretta Capeheart is a tenured professor at Northeastern Illinois University, and is faculty advisor to a group of student activists. Capeheart and the students had protested on-campus recruiting by the military and the CIA and, during one protest, some of the students were arrested by campus police. After she spoke out against the arrests, Capeheart alleges that she was denied a promotion and that a university vice-president intimated that she is a stalker. She has sued university administrators for violating her right to free speech under both the U.S. and Illinois constitutions, as well as defamation. Both she and the defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Capeheart's motion for summary judgment is denied, while the defendants' motions are granted.

FACTS

The following facts are undisputed except where noted. Capeheart has been a professor in the department of Justice Studies at Northeastern Illinois University since September 2002. In addition to teaching, she is a researcher studying social inequality and social change. Her current research includes exploring the impact of social inequality on the incarceration of Latinos. She has also served on a Latino Education Committee, where she analyzed the adequacy of programs that serve Latino students in the Chicago area.

Since arriving at the university in 2002, Capeheart has served on the Latino and Latin American Studies committee. In 2006, she was elected to a two-year term as a member of the Faculty Council for Student Affairs and, at the same time, served as the vice chair of the Faculty Senate. Since 2006, she has also served as a faculty advisor to the student Socialist Club.

Capeheart is a self-described activist, and has often spoke publicly about or protested various issues on campus, as have the student members of the Socialist Club. For instance, in April 2006, Capeheart joined two students, one of whom was a member of the Socialist Club, in protesting the presence of Army recruiters at the university's annual job fair by distributing leaflets to potential recruitees. Campus police were called and although the students were allowed to remain, officers asked her to leave, which she did. She was not disciplined for the incident at the time.

Capeheart's activism continued in September 2006, when she spoke on campus at a meeting of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus, which also featured comments by defendant Lawrence Frank, the university's provost. Frank and Capeheart both addressed questions about the low number of Latino faculty members. While Frank told the caucus that the university's ability to hire more Latino faculty was constrained by budgetary pressures, Capeheart blamed the budgetary pressures that Frank had described on excessive administrative spending.

Then on February 28, 2007, two student members of the Socialist Club protested the presence of the CIA at a recruiting event on campus. An employee working at the event reported being injured during the protest and campus police arrested the two students. Capeheart was not present at the event but, later that day, she called defendant Melvin Terrell, the vice-president for student affairs, to advocate on behalf of the arrested students.

Capeheart's advocacy continued in the days following the arrests as she (1) requested to meet with Terrell and the dean of students about the arrests, (2) solicited support from the faculty union, and (3) sent e-mails complaining about the arrests to faculty members and university administrators, including defendant Sharon Hahs, the university president. On March 2, 2007, in conjunction with other faculty members in the Justice Studies department, she sent an e-mail university-wide expressing deep concern about the arrests. The e-mail was also published by the student newspaper. The arrests also garnered attention off-campus, including various news reports.

Two weeks after the arrests, on March 12, 2007, Capeheart attended a meeting of the Faculty Council for Student Affairs, of which she was an elected member. Capeheart was one of seven people attending the meeting, which also included Terrell and five other faculty and administrative members. At the meeting, Capeheart questioned Terrell about the students' arrest and criticized the use of campus police against students who protest peacefully.

During his response to Capeheart's questions, Terrell stated that he had received a report from campus police that Capeheart had been stalking a student. The report had been made by a student complaining that members of the Socialist Club had been watching and following employees of the job placement office. The student also reported that Capeheart had chased her down while the student was distributing flyers critical of the Socialist Club.

Capeheart filed a complaint about Terrell referring to her as a stalker with the university's Affirmative Action Office. The office took no action, stating that her complaint did not involve discrimination or sexual harassment, but the office did determine that "Terrell did act inappropriately by stating before the Faculty Council on Student Affairs that you were the subject of a student complaint that was filed with our campus police. Any official complaint filed with our campus police should never be discussed in a public forum." Pl.'s App. [149-1] Ex. 7 at 2.

Capeheart contends that defendants Frank and Hahs then began retaliating against her for exercising her First Amendment right to speak out against military and CIA recruiting on campus, the arrest of student protesters, and inadequate hiring of Latino faculty members. Specifically, she alleges that even though the Justice Studies department faculty elected her to be their new chair, on August 20, 2007, Frank announced that he had filled the position with someone from outside the department instead. Capeheart contends that the defendants also later refused to appoint her as department coordinator, and denied her a 2007 Faculty Excellence Award for a book she had authored (though she received the award in 2008 after the book had been published).

She has filed suit against Terrell, Hahs and Frank alleging claims of defamation and violation of her right to free speech. Specifically, she seeks (1) to enjoin defendants Hahs and Frank from continuing to retaliate against her for exercising her right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution (Count I); (2) damages from defendant Terrell for defamation per se (Count II) and per quod (Count III); and (3) damages against Hahs, Frank and Terrell for retaliating against her for exercising her right to free speech under the Illinois Constitution, as well as an injunction to prevent additional retaliation ...


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