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Former coach must prove malice in suit

Judge: Station went beyond a fair report

DIXON – A judge on Wednesday set a higher legal hurdle for a former basketball coach to prevail in a defamation lawsuit.

In a 27-page opinion, Judge David Jeffrey determined that the former coach, Steve Sandholm, was a public figure. Because of that, Sandholm must show the defendants acted with malice. In other words, the judge said, the former coach must prove the defendants knew their statements were false or they acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

In 2008, Sandholm sued several parents of former basketball players and a local radio station. The parents had made critical comments online and on the radio about his coaching style.

They also accused him of verbally abusing players and making profanity-laced speeches at halftime, according to Sandholm’s lawsuit.

The complaint was dismissed by the Lee County court in July 2009 and again by an appellate court in October 2010. Last January, the Illinois Supreme Court sent the suit back to Lee County for reconsideration.

In his opinion, Jeffrey, a Stephenson County judge, cited other cases in which coaches and teachers had been considered public figures. Sandholm also was the school’s athletic director and had a weekly radio show.

Jeffrey went through the statements that Sandholm claimed were defamatory. Most of them, the judge found, could constitute “defamation per se,” meaning a jury could determine whether they were true or false.

The defendants include NRG Media, parent company of local radio station WIXN, and Al Knickrehm, the station’s general manager.

The radio station argued it should be dropped from the lawsuit because of the state’s fair reporting privilege, which protects the news media in reporting defamatory statements that are made during government proceedings.

The radio program in question was in March 2008, and it was about Sandholm. The station claimed it was a fair summary of an anti-Sandholm petition, which had been presented to the Dixon school board.

Jeffrey said Knickrehm, who participated in the show with parents of former basketball players, went beyond a fair report.

“He did not limit his comments to what went on at [a school board] meeting but added his own statements concerning the Plaintiff and the events at the meeting,” Jeffrey wrote in his opinion. “Mr. Knickrehm continually used the pronoun ‘we’ to describe the sentiments of the group. He appeared to go beyond what would be contained in a fair rendition of the meeting.”

The judge is giving Sandholm a chance to present facts to show the defendants had malice in their statements.

The next hearing in the lawsuit is Dec. 21.

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