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Mimi Peterson is used to speaking her mind. It comes naturally to the 37-year-old wife and mother of three. Her concern over the years on issues of crime in her tree-lined Evanston, Ill., neighborhood, the tax contribution Northwestern University makes to the city, and oversight of sundry community projects has made this part-time swim teacher and full-time homemaker an unlikely, though not unwilling, activist. And while Peterson has accepted that her outspokenness means city hall employees probably “can’t stand me,” she never expected her comments at a public council meeting in January would send her to court. But they did. In April, the owner of La Grange Park, Ill.-based Winkler Tree Service sued Peterson in a Cook County Circuit Court alleging she defamed his company. Vince Winkler is seeking $250,000 in damages, claiming Peterson’s remarks that his tree-trimming job for the city was “atrocious” hurt his reputation. Peterson’s lawyer, Stephen E. Sward of Chicago’s Rooks Pitts & Poust, said he intends to argue in his response later this month that Peterson’s comments before a public body were absolutely privileged. “Fundamentally what we have here is the right of a citizen to petition the government for redress,” Sward said. “It’s about as fundamental a right as we have.” Indeed, the suit, dubbed by Peterson’s supporters as a SLAPP — for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — has sparked a sympathetic response from Evanston aldermen and may ultimately revive legislation that would make it easier for defendants like Peterson to have such suits dismissed. Steven J. Bernstein (from Peterson’s 4th Ward) and Arthur B. Newman (1st Ward), for instance, have publicly condemned the suit as stifling free speech. It’s unusual for municipal leaders to come to the defense of a defendant in a SLAPP suit, according to those who closely follow such litigation. THE ANATOMY OF A SLAPP SUIT University of Denver Law Professor George W. Pring, who along with his colleague Penelope Canan coined the term SLAPP, said government agencies and municipalities are the second largest category of SLAPPers. “So the very people who are supposed to listen to us are frequently the ones who try to shoot the messenger,” said Pring, whose book “Getting Sued for Speaking Out” remains the leading treatise on SLAPPs. According to Pring, SLAPP suits are a relatively new legal tactic, employed since the 1970s in response to the rise in citizen activism that boomed in the ’60s. “SLAPPs generally arise out of one group of interests working from a monetary interest trying to abuse the courts as a way to suppress and censor citizens and organizations and other businesses from communicating their views,” Pring said. Neither Winkler nor his attorney, who has been quoted as denying the suit falls into the SLAPP suit category, returned calls for comment. But anti-SLAPP activists such as Pring and Jane M. Whicher, staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Chicago, say the case fits the profile. Such cases, they maintain, are for the most part losers in court. And yet, SLAPP suits can have a devastating financial effect on regular people forced to defend themselves. The result, Pring said, is a diversion of attention from the issue and a more disturbing chill on speech, not only speech of the defendant, but of other residents who might now think twice about asserting their own opinions. Peterson has so far been spared concerns over the financial implications of Winkler’s lawsuit since her defense is covered under an insurance policy she shares with her husband, who owns his own business. However, several states have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation for those less fortunate. Fifteen states, including Indiana and California, have anti-SLAPP statutes, according to the California Anti-SLAPP Project. Activists and lawmakers in another 12 states have either proposed legislation or are advocating for it. Passed in 1992, California has the most comprehensive anti-SLAPP law in the country. But as in most states, the legislation didn’t drastically change existing state laws regarding the dismissal of lawsuits. Rather, in cases labeled SLAPP, the California model allows a judge to immediately stay any discovery and shift the burden to the plaintiff to show that the suit has a probability of prevailing. Illinois provides no such relief. And when Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, introduced the Citizens Participation Act of 1994, she got a cool reception in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. She also didn’t get much help from the bar associations, Currie recalled during a recent e-mail exchange. “It’s hard to get votes from lawyer-members when the bar groups are not supportive,” she wrote. “In addition, it’s tough to sell a measure that benefits individuals at the expense of large corporate entities when many legislators are friends to the business community.” But Currie, who may also have the support of state Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, said she’s willing to try again and see if the climate is more suitable now. Alderman Bernstein, while not sure exactly how much the city of Evanston can do to help Peterson in a monetary or legal manner, said he has asked the law department to look at the issue. Corporation Counsel Jack M. Siegel, of counsel at Altheimer & Gray, said nothing’s been referred to him. Calls to Evanston’s law department were not returned. Bernstein said he remains dumbfounded by the suit and fearful that if the city doesn’t respond publicly against the suit, it will look like it’s done something wrong by listening to one of its residents. Describing Peterson as somewhat of a “tree zealot” for the past couple of years, Bernstein said she really did nothing more than follow through on a project that she in essence started. Peterson’s involvement with the tree-trimming matter stems from a personal interest in her property. She brought the issue to the attention of the council four years ago after she couldn’t get anyone from the city to look at the sickly Elm tree dropping “yucky brown stuff” all over her front yard. Not satisfied with being told the city didn’t have the budget to care for its trees, which Peterson considered a valuable capital asset, she spent the next couple years doing research and later lobbied the council to better maintain its wooded parkway. “She was instrumental in persuading us to get the project going and she just followed through,” Bernstein said. And once the city had spent more than $180,000 on a contractor to trim the trees, Peterson followed up. Prompted by her arborist contacts, she took a critical look at the job, got an expert opinion, then another, and presented a report to the council, never publicly mentioning Winkler’s company, she and Bernstein said. Peterson insists she wasn’t even upset with Winkler so much as she was upset that the City Council didn’t have an oversight process for a project it had spent thousands of dollars on. “My focus was on the city’s responsibility to the taxpayers and certainly not on the city’s agreement with any contractor,” Peterson said. “My issues were how those dollars that were recently allocated � were being used.” It turned out the council agreed, at least on some level, that the job wasn’t completed to its satisfaction, requesting some of the work be redone, Bernstein said. “She actually came to the city with her opinion of what the contractor had done,” he said. “To me, that should be protected speech.” Critical of Winkler’s suit, Bernstein said he wishes the contractor would just drop it. He also doesn’t see how Winkler will ever prevail. “It was her opinion. She didn’t broadcast his name and she told the truth,” Bernstein said, adding that in his opinion, Winkler’s service “did do a terrible job.”

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