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The Editorial Page as Suggestion Box

The Trib's asking readers where else to put the Children's Museum.

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The Tribune's John McCormick has himself a nice assignment. He's responsible for the editorials that every few days suggest yet another offbeat location for the Children's Museum.

McCormick's lived in the city for some 30 years, yet the ideas readers send in constantly catch him by surprise. "I don't think we're the ones applying the imagination here," he says. "We're benefiting from imagination." Take last Sunday's proposal to convert the old Doctors Hospital in Hyde Park, empty since 2000. Or the one to incorporate the museum into a cultural and athletic center that community groups want to build straddling the trench where the Blue Line dives into the ground just southeast of the Logan Square station. "They have this idea of six-year-olds looking through windows at the trains flying by, and you'd incorporate a theater for dance groups, drama groups.... I'm not aware of anything like it on earth."

The Tribune's received ideas from more than a hundred readers, though there's been a lot of redundancy—a lot of votes for Northerly Island, for example. McCormick and editorial board coordinator Kristin Samuelson hop in his car and check each one out. "The only hard and fast rule I've tried to abide by is not to rely on what I think I know," he says. "The city's really vital and things change. The one thing I'm nervous about is anyone getting the notion we're sitting around the Tribune Tower preening like little urban planners."

That's a notion the editorials in no way invite. The lack of didacticism in McCormick's series is a tonic.

Yes, there's the perfunctory sneer at the "Grant Park land grab." But if not quite a dead horse, the argument against defiling a sacred vista is too lame to make it around the track against the opposition of not only the mayor and the Children's Museum's other powerful allies but even Lois Wille, Grant Park's biographer and the Tribune's former editorial boss. What ultimately undoes the museum's claim on Grant Park is its failure to look anywhere else, and Bruce Dold, who now holds Wille's old job, decided early on that the Tribune would have to propose alternatives.

So the Tribune's brainstorming. The proposals—the Doctors Hospital was the eighth—can all be reviewed at chicagotribune.com, where the editorials are posted along with short videos that Samuelson produces about each site. McCormick isn't sure how long the series will continue, but he says it won't end with the paper picking its favorite and letting the city know what father thinks is best. Editorial pages often affect a certain hauteur, and it's amazing how much we don't miss it when it's not there.

Citizen Participation Act Gets Its Day in Court

Patrick Donnelly, an overnight legal authority on Illinois' new Citizen Participation Act, has issues with it. "I think it's not a great piece of legislation," says Donnelly, who recently collided with the law as attorney for a developer who sued two neighborhood critics for defamation. "Not to sound like a gun nut, but there are enough laws on the books that if someone sues someone improvidentially, someone can take a whack back at them."

Donnelly's client, James Jaeger, sued Tom and Joy Okon, who were leading the charge against a seven-story building Jaeger wanted to put up at 1820-42 W. Irving Park. The Okons' blog called Jaeger "greedy," "very sneaky," and "evil" and suggested he'd paid off the local chamber of commerce to support a zoning change he needed.

What laws are those? I asked Donnelly.

"The best defense is to run to the alderman—'Is this the kind of developer you want running amok in the ward?'" Donnelly went on. "Or go to the papers—'This guy is being a jerk to me.' Their businesses are very sensitive to public good will."

But those aren't laws, I said.

"Point taken," said Donnelly. I'd reached him at the offices of his firm, Riordan, Donnelly, Lipinski & McKee, and he asked a young colleague, Alexander Memmen, to weigh in by speakerphone. "Alex has deeper thoughts than I do," said Donnelly.

"If I were to rewrite [the act], I'd make it more explicit what kind of speech it applies to," said Memmen. "The statute says any speech involved in a citizen's right to assemble on public matters. I'd make it explicit it only applies to speech inside the bounds of what's protected by the First Amendment. I might provide a higher burden of proof for the person making the motion to dismiss. Some states require a demonstration of the fact the speech was not defamatory. In California, if defendants want to proceed with a motion to dismiss, they have to show an actual chilling effect, they have to show the developers' litigation actually caused them to stop speaking out or others to stop speaking out."

"Alex is in the Federalist Society," said Donnelly.

Memmen said he intends to think long and hard about the Citizen Participation Act and write an article on it for the Illinois Bar Journal.

"I'm a big lefty," said Donnelly. "To the extent [the act] helps people against the man, I'm for it. There's the shit-disturber part of me that likes it. I want to have a say in what goes on in my community. I like the fact that if I put myself out there and somebody bullies me, that thing is something I might be able to look to. But it's too broad a statute, too dull an ax."

I wrote about Jaeger's suit against the Okons in Hot Type on April 3. The Citizen Participation Act became law last August, and in March the Okons' attorney, Daliah Saper, unleashed it on Jaeger and Donnelly. Says the CPA: "Acts in furtherance of the constitutional rights to petition, speech, association, and participation in government are immune from liability, regardless of intent or purpose." Furthermore, the act instructs judges that it "shall be construed liberally to effectuate its purposes and intent fully."

Saper asked the court to dismiss Jaeger's suit. Instead, the two sides promptly settled out of court. According to an article in the Booster, the Okons wound up paying $20,000 and posting an apology on their blog, terms that don't resemble victory and that make the Citizen Participation Act sound pretty toothless. But although exact details of the settlement are being kept confidential, Tom Okon indicated to me that the $20,000 simply covered his own legal fees. (Under the act, which the judge in the case wasn't given the opportunity to invoke, Jaeger might have had to pay those fees for the Okons.) As for the apology—well, Jaeger had one coming. "The solution here, it was amicable," said Donnelly. "It was kind of a touchy-feely thing. What he wanted out of this suit was to make it clear to everyone that he's an honest man making an honest living. He's not a crook, basically. We were successful in communicating that."

The purpose of the CPA—versions of which have been passed in several states —is to help common folk like the Okons defend themselves against "strategic lawsuits against public participation" in government, or SLAPPS. These suits, typically but not necessarily filed by developers, are intended to intimidate critics by threatening them with lawsuits they can't afford to fight. That the developers would probably lose in the end is beside the point.

Because the two sides settled, Jaeger's suit didn't lead to what Saper had hoped it would: the first court test of the Illinois CPA. But Saper was beaten to the punch regardless, by lawyers for Debra Gassman in the celebrated litigation the Jerusalem Post has called "the case of the confiscated mezuzah."

As the Post told the story, Gassman's troubles began the day she returned to her condo at Shoreline Towers in Edgewater and discovered her mezuzah—a tiny prayer scroll in a decorative case, affixed by many observant Jews to their door frames as scripture dictates—had been taken down by the condo association on grounds that no decorations were permitted in the hallways. Gassman, a public defender by trade, filed a religious discrimination claim with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (dismissed); a complaint with the Illinois attorney general (closed when the condo association changed its rules); a complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations (pending); and a religious discrimination claim in the federal courts (a jury ruled against Gassman).

Last year the condo association, alleging that Gassman was waging a "campaign of harassment and intimidation" not limited to the above, took her to court. She defended herself by invoking the CPA, and on March 25 Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Pantle ruled on each of the ten counts in the suit. These rulings can be considered the first judicial attempt to establish the boundaries of the CPA.

Pantle dismissed counts in which the condo association alleged that Gassman defamed its character and reputation and interfered with its day-to-day operations; used her position as a public defender as leverage to try to muscle the association; and engaged in malicious prosecution by filing so many suits.

But the judge let other counts stand. According to these, Gassman defamed the president of the association's board of directors by telling the desk clerk that he "was getting illegal drug deliveries [and] that one of the Association employees was his homosexual lover."

"Anti-SLAPP legislation," wrote the judge, "does not permit a person to actually defame another and then seek the protection of the statute. The law is intended to protect those who are in danger of being sued solely because of their valid attempts to petition the government."

Says Gassman's lawyer, William Goldberg, "[Pantle] thoroughly analyzed the act and upheld the principle of it. We wanted her to dismiss the whole thing but we view it as being more than a 60 percent win."v

For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com

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