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Sandholm defendants state their case for dismissal of lawsuit

Steve Sandholm

DIXON - Despite the old adage, talk is not cheap. In fact, if the defendants in a defamation lawsuit filed by former Dixon basketball coach Steve Sandholm are found guilty, they stand to pay a total of more than $3 million in damages. First, the suit must survive a motion to dismiss, which Stephenson County Judge David L. Jeffrey heard Tuesday and could rule on as soon as Oct. 16. The dispute started last school year, on the basketball court, when parents said they were outraged with the behavior of Sandholm, who served as both the school district's athletic director and the high school basketball coach. It moved to the courtroom after the public dispute - aired on the Internet, local radio and school board meetings - resulting in the board's decision to remove Sandholm from his coaching duties. His attorney said Sandholm's career has been ruined by what he calls the parents' false and public accusations. A large part of Tuesday's proceedings revolved around the Save Dixon Sports committee and its Web site, both of which several parents formed to get Sandholm fired from the school for his treatment of players. Their campaign included an appearance on WIXN radio in March, where a panel was interviewed by general manager Al Knickrehm. The crux of the defendants' motion to dismiss is their claim that their remarks are protected under the right to free speech. Sandholm contends the comments went too far, defaming him personally and harming him professionally. His attorney, Stephen Fieweger, said certain language used by Knickrehm in that interview endorsed Sandholm's removal. That would violate Knickrehm's "fair reporting" privilege, Fieweger said, which safeguards media from legal action unless it can be proven that a report was made with malice. Specifically, he was referring to Knickrehm's remark: "...[G]et some luggage for [Sandholm] ... ship him off." Defense attorney Richard E. Lieberman argued that Knickrehm was confirming only what parents were requesting. Even if Knickrehm did suggest that Sandholm should be removed, his First Amendment right to do so would prevail, Lieberman said. "Indeed, the hallmark of free speech is that it encourages the media to provide free speech and exercise its ideas." Co-counsel Jeffrey Zucchi reinforced that idea, saying that statements made on the program and on the parents' Web site criticized Sandholm's "coaching style," and did not defame his person. Zucchi compared what was said to how sportscasters analyze coaches on professional sports shows. "Becoming a coach and then complaining about people criticizing your coaching style is like jumping into a pool and complaining about getting wet," Zucchi said. "This is the sports world." Fieweger argued that Knickrehm's statements overstepped any statutorily protected rights. "That's beyond the scope of fair reporting. That's adding sting," Fieweger said. "This guy had an ax to grind because he didn't like the way Sandholm was coaching girls and boys basketball in Dixon." Fieweger said Sandholm sued only to protect his professional interests, not because he was trying to quell free speech. "It was to stop factual statements that [professionally] are injuring him and hurting him within the community." He also took issue with statements made by the parents on both the Web site and in the broadcasts, which said Sandholm "bullied" students, and was a "bad coach" and an "embarrassment to the community." "If that's not impugning his reputation as a coach, I don't know what is," Fieweger said. If Jeffrey does not rule on the motion at the Oct. 16 hearing, the case likely will move into the discovery process, wherein former players, parents and Sandholm's colleagues would be called to testify. Defamation suit names 13 Dixon High School athletic director and former boys basketball coach Steve Sandholm is suing parents and a local radio station for defamation. The bulk of the case's 13 defendants are parents Dan Burke, Mary Mahan-Deatherage and Greg Deatherage, David Deets, Glen Hughes, Rich and Ardis Kuecker, Tim Oliver, Bob Shomaker and Michael Venier. Also named are former school board member Neil Petersen, WIXN Radio's parent company, NRG Media, and the station's general manager, Al Knickrehm.

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