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Judge to hear motions to dismiss on April 17

Plaintiff fails to prove malice, defendants say

DIXON – Nearly 5 years after it first was filed, a judge again is considering motions to dismiss a defamation suit filed by a former Dixon School District varsity boys coach and athletic director Steve Sandholm.

Stephenson County Judge David L. Jeffrey, who is hearing the case in Lee County, is expected to hear the four motions, filed by defendants' attorneys, on April 17.

In April 2008, after some players’ parents organized a campaign to get him fired and the Dixon School board removed him as coach, Sandholm sued several of the parents and NRG Media, parent company of local radio station WIXN, and the station's general manager. The parents had made critical comments online and on the radio about his coaching style, and accused him of verbally abusing players and making profanity-laced speeches at halftime.

The suit was dismissed by the Lee County Court in July 2009 and again by an appellate court in October 2010. In January 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court sent it back to Lee County for reconsideration.

In October, Jeffrey ruled that Sandholm was a public figure, and so must show the defendants acted with malice – that they knew their statements were false or they acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

In a amended complaint filed Nov. 13, Stephen Fieweger, Sandholm's attorney, claims the defendants "had observed Steve coach, serve as athletic director, interact with Dixon citizens, fund raise for Dixon High School, and based on such observations and interactions, knew that the false facts [defendants] individually and jointly published with other defendants about Steve were false, or made such publications in reckless disregard for their truth of falsity."

All four defense attorneys subsequently filed motions to dismiss the case, all claiming Sandholm fails to prove the defendants either had the knowledge to make false statements, or acted with reckless disregard.

"Malice is one thing we're arguing he has not adequately proved," said Linda Giesen, who represents parents Glen Hughes, Tim Oliver, Dan Burke, David Deets, Mary Mahan-Deatherage and Greg Deatherage, and Dixon resident Robert Shomaker. She filed her motion to dismiss Dec. 13.

Magen Mertes, who represents parents Richard and Ardis Keucker, filed her motion Dec. 17, as did Jeffrey Zucchi, who represents parent Michael Venier.

Michael Lieber, who represents NRG Media and its general manager, Al Knickrehm, filed his Feb. 19.

Sandholm has "had four and a half years to construct a viable complaint," but "after five tries, he still fails," Lieber wrote.

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