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Former coach’s suit may continue

Judge rejects requests to dismiss defamation case

DIXON – A defamation lawsuit filed by a former Dixon High School coach will proceed.

On Friday, Judge David Jeffrey rejected requests to dismiss Steve Sandholm’s case against NRG Media, parent company of local radio station WIXN; its general manager, Al Knickrehm; and several students’ parents.

More than 5 years ago, Sandholm, Dixon’s boys basketball coach and athletic director, was fired after some players’ parents organized a campaign to oust him. The parents had made critical comments online and on the radio about his coaching style. They accused him of verbally abusing players and making profanity-laced speeches at halftime.

The lawsuit, filed in April 2008, was dismissed by the Lee County Court in July 2009 and again by the appellate court in October 2010. But in January 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court sent it back to Lee County for reconsideration.

In October, Jeffrey, who is based in Stephenson County, 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.

He previously ruled that Sandholm’s lawsuit had not adequately pleaded that malice relating to defamation had taken place. He also found the complaint had not sufficiently articulated a count of conspiracy.

But Sandholm satisfied those concerns in an amended lawsuit, the judge said.

In the amended filing, Sandholm claims that nearly all of the defendants held meetings and communicated with each other by email and telephone to form a group to oust Sandholm.

“In so doing, they agreed to create a petition containing false and defamatory statements about Steve and agreed to publish those statements under the guise of the Save Dixon Sports Committee,” the lawsuit said.

The next pretrial hearing in the case will be June 10.

Besides NRG, the other defendants are Richard and Ardis Kuecker, Glen Hughes, Michael Venier, Tim Oliver, Dan Burke, David Deets, Mary Mahan Deatherage, Greg Deatherage, Robert Shomaker and Neil Peterson.

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