FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Maryam Judar
August 27, 2015 Executive Director/Community Lawyer
Citizen Advocacy Center (630) 833-4080
CITIZEN ADVOCACY CENTER AND AREA HIGH SCHOOLS
WELCOME NELI FARAHMANDPOUR, TEEN VOTING ADVOCATE,
TO CELEBRATE CONSTITUTION WEEK
A former Stevenson High School student who helped win enactment of “Suffrage at 17” — a law that allows Illinois 17-year-olds to vote in primaries — will be the featured speaker at 2015 Constitution Week events co-sponsored by the Citizen Advocacy Center and area high schools. She will also be speaking at an evening forum to be held at 7 p.m. on Sept. 16, 2015 at the Citizen Advocacy Center office, 182 N. York Street, Elmhurst, Illinois.
Neli Farahmandpour, a 2014 Stevenson graduate, will speak at suburban high schools about the First Amendment’s right to petition as an important thread in the fabric of American democracy.
“I think that everyone is passionate about at least one topic, and I sincerely hope that students across the state can use their constitutional rights to lobby for what they believe in,” said Farahmandpour, currently a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And while that may not always be easy and may involve a lot of time and effort, every single student in Illinois is capable of contributing to changes that they would like to see in our state.”
Observed annually from Sept. 17 to 23, Constitution Week commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Celebrating this event is a way to remember the importance of a document held in esteem worldwide for empowering “We the People” with the rights and responsibilities to engage in the democratic process. In particular, the First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition are essential to ensure a healthy democracy and hold government accountable.
“Constitution Week recognizes the importance of our founding document by introducing students and adults to constitutional issues through dynamic speakers with firsthand knowledge of what it means to fight for freedom,” said Andrea Alvarez, community lawyer at Citizen Advocacy Center. “Ms. Farahmandpour knows from her own experience the significant role that students can play in creating political change thanks to the First Amendment’s right to petition, and she has a remarkable personal story to share.”
During a summer class before her junior year in high school, Farahmandpour learned about “Suffrage at 17” — a proposal, already law in several other states, that 17-year-olds be permitted to vote in primary elections if they are going to turn 18 by the time of the general election. Her instructor, Stevenson government teacher Andrew Conneen, broached the subject while he took attendance one day.
“He asked a fellow classmate when his birthday was, and the student replied that it was in May,” she said. “I distinctly remember Mr. Conneen turning to him and asking, ‘Now wouldn’t it be great if you were allowed to vote in the primary elections?’ ”
As president of Stevenson’s Law Club, Farahmandpour recognized the potential lobbying power that her classmates could bring on behalf of a bill changing the Illinois voting age for primaries. By early 2013, HB- 226 had been introduced in the General Assembly with bipartisan support.
“Stevenson’s Law Club and Political Action Club teamed up to host meetings regarding the proposed law and what it would entail,” Farahmandpour recalled. “In March of 2013, several students from the two clubs went to Springfield to meet with members of the Illinois Senate to lobby for the bill. I had the distinct honor of testifying in front of the Senate Executive Committee, alongside Mr. Conneen, where we were able explain why we thought passing Suffrage at 17 would be so beneficial.”
The House passed the bill in April by a vote of 95-22, and a month later the Senate passed it 43-9. Then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed the measure into law July 3 in a ceremony at Stevenson High School, with Farahmandpour and other students looking on.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned was the value of bipartisan support,” she said. “I don’t think Suffrage at 17 would have passed if we didn’t have support from members belonging to both political parties. I also learned the importance of working together as a community. Everyone worked really hard — not individually but as a team.”
Farahmandpour’s experience with the First Amendment right to petition turned out to be a successful one. She believes other young people can achieve similar success if they’re willing to take the initiative and become engaged in civic life.
“One major point that I would really like to get across to my audiences during Constitution Week is the value of involvement, as well as the effects of persistence,” she said. “I think it is so important for high school students across the state — as well as across the nation — to get involved in civics.”
In previous years, Citizen Advocacy Center has hosted dynamic speakers showcasing other First Amendment freedoms. These include Mary Beth Tinker, free-speech advocate and plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court student free-speech case, and Jessica Ahlquist, freedom-of-religion advocate and plaintiff in a successful lawsuit challenging her high school’s endorsement of religion.
The Citizen Advocacy Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan community-based legal organization dedicated to building democracy for the 21st century by increasing the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. For more information, visit www.CitizenAdvocacyCenter.org or call 630-833-4080.
CAC Constitution Week Forum Monday September 16th at 6:30 pm at the Center
To commemorate Constitution Day, Celebrate First Amendment Freedoms, and Inspire Civic Participation!
Constitution Day commemorates the formation and signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. Celebrating Constitution Day provides an opportunity for the public to remember the importance of a document held in esteem worldwide for empowering “We the People” with the rights and responsibilities to engage in the democratic process. The First Amendment Freedoms, (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition our government, freedom to assemble, and freedom of religion) are essential components that ensure a healthy democracy and the capacity to hold government accountable.
“Constitution Week recognizes the importance of our founding document by introducing students and adults to constitutional issues through dynamic speakers with first-hand knowledge of what it means to fight for
freedom. Ms. Hayes’ experiences illustrate the tensions in our democracy while sharing a remarkable journey in
First Amendment advocacy, ” said Maryam Judar, community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center.
In collaboration with area high schools, and made possible with support from the McCormick Foundation, the focus of this year’s Constitution Week is the constitutional right to peaceful assembly in protesting government activity. As with previous Constitution Week speakers, the Citizen Advocacy Center is highlighting the importance of a robust legal infrastructure for public participation and is not endorsing any particular position on the specific issues Ms. Hayes is passionate about.
Ms. Hayes is a youth organizer who has participated in several community organizing initiatives. These include planning of the Chicago NATO protest in the Spring of 2012; Chicago Occupy Protests; and opposition to the City of Chicago’s ordinance curtailing First Amendment rights, dubbed by the press as the “Sit Down and Shut Up Ordinance.” She is also a Non Violent Direct Action (NVDA) trainer. Her advocacy has focused on combating austerity measures by government as well as advocating for social justice issues. She is presently involved in the battle for public education in Chicago and in the creation of a city wide series of NVDA trainings for student activists.
While in the western suburbs, Ms. Hayes will speak to hundreds of high school students, including those at York High School in Elmhurst and Glenbard South in Glen Ellyn, about utilizing her First Amendment freedoms to peaceably assemble and petition the government. Students will hear her first-hand accounts and have the opportunity to ask questions. Community lawyer Maryam Judar will accompany Ms. Hayes to provide the constitutional context for her participation in the government decision making process.
The Citizen Advocacy Center is a non-profit, non-partisan community based legal organization dedicated to building democracy for the 21st Century by increasing the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. The Citizen Advocacy Center is funded entirely through contributions from individuals and foundations. We do not accept corporate or government funding. This allows us to maintain our independence and provide unbiased advice, analysis, and commentary.
* This blog entry is written by a non-lawyer and is not intended to be legal advice. Anyone with specific questions about this topic and whether or not it applies to them, should consult a practicing attorney. *
Public participation is key to democratic governance and ensuring that the public’s concerns are met when government officials are making decisions. However, in Illinois and across the United States, certain forms of public participation vis-a-vis corporations, government officials, and public bodies have been targeted when members of the public advocate for government action that is in opposition to the interests of a corporation or the desires of a government entity. When individuals attend government meetings and engage in lawfully protected First Amendment activities, and subsequently are sued by corporations or government bodies under some pretext for the purpose of chilling the individuals’ speech, these lawsuits are called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
SLAPP suits have been used in Illinois on a number of occasions. Here are some examples:
- Horizon Group Management, LLC v. Bonnen (2009): This case involves a tweet that the former tenant of a Chicago apartment complex sent to her twenty Twitter followers regarding mold in her former apartment building. As a result of the tweet, which alleged that Horizon kept keeps its apartments in poor condition, Horizon sued the former tenant for defamation and $50,000 in damages. This case is pending. One of the issues is whether the former tenant’s tweet is protected First Amendment speech.
- Scheidler v. Trombley (2007): In this case, the Pro Life Action League, which is a pro-life advocacy group in Illinois, sued Illinois Planned Parenthood for defamation. The suit revolved around statements that Illinois Planned Parenthood’s CEO Steve Trombley made in letters to city and county officials as well as a local newspaper. Specifically, Trombley wrote that pro-life groups have a “well documented history of advocating violence.” Trombley was sued by the Pro Life Action League and others for defamation, but the court threw out most of the claims in the suit against Trombley by application of Illinois’ then newly enacted Citizen Participation Act (described more fully, below).
- Oliver Hoffman v. The Village of Wayne, The Dupage County Forest Preserve, and The Wayne Community Association (1995): This is a lawsuit in which the Citizen Advocacy Center’s community lawyers defended the rights of a community group. The lawsuit was filed in DuPage County by developer Oliver-Hoffmann against individuals involved in The Wayne Community Association. Specifically, the developer took issue with The Association’s petition to the Forest Preserve to preserve the open space on which Oliver-Hoffmann was seeking to build and for making statements to the press seeking the condemnation of the developer’s 203 acres of land in the middle of the community of Wayne. In this prime example of a SLAPP suit, Oliver-Hoffmann brought the suit against the defendants for what they called “civic conspiracy” and “tortious interference with business expectancy.” Oliver-Hoffmann sought $110 million from each defendant. However, the judge dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice against Oliver-Hoffman.
- Westfield Partners, Ltd. v. Hogan, 744 F. Supp. 189 (1990): This case is one of the more explicit SLAPP cases involving a development group called Westfield Partners and a group of residents of Wayne Township. Residents successfully blocked the development group’s use of a road by filing a petition with the township. The development group then filed a suit against the homeowners. In the suit, the development group claimed that the homeowners involved had committed conspiracy to deprive of due process, interference with prospective economic advantage, and slander. The development group sought $4 million in damages. The court ruled against the developer saying that the, “entire complaint against the defendants [was] based upon nothing more than defendants’ exercise of their right, under the [F]irst [A]mendment, to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The recent increase in these lawsuits led to the establishment of anti-SLAPP laws in Illinois and 25 other states. Specifically, the anti-SLAPP law in Illinois is the Citizen Participation Act, which lays out how one would protect themselves from a SLAPP suit. The Citizen Participation Act allows defendants of SLAPP suits to use the act as a defense against a SLAPP suit. With that, the Citizen Participation Act recognizes that “[t]he threat of SLAPPs significantly chills and diminishes citizen participation in government, voluntary public service, and the exercise of these important constitutional rights.” 735 ILCS 110/5. The Citizen Participation Act protects those who believe they are being sued on the basis of “any act or acts in furtherance of [your] rights of petition, speech, association, or to otherwise participate in government.” Another important criteria for the Citizen Participation Act, is that the speech or petition is “genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome. In addition to protecting the above mentioned rights, anti-SLAPP laws also benefit the defendant in the trial process. The Citizen Protection Act in Illinois does this in the following ways:
- When the motion on an anti-SLAPP suit is pending, plaintiff generally cannot engage in discovery which means they cannot ask the defendant to produce documents, sit for a deposition, or answer formally written questions.
- The Citizen Participation Act also allows those who have filed a motion for an anti-SLAPP suit to get a speedy decision on the defendant’s motion to dismiss and to file an expedited appeal if the court denies the motion.
And if the court happens to grant the motion to dismiss the case:
- The court will dismiss the case in favor of the party who is claiming a First Amendment violation;
- The individual is entitled to recover attorney fees and court costs associated with the case; and
- The individual may be able to bring a claim for malicious prosecution against the plaintiff who brought the SLAPP suit.
In the case of Illinois, the Anti-SLAPP law is fairly new, considering the Citizen Participation Act only just passed in 2007. That being said, several cases interpret the recent legislation broadly. These cases have set important precedents for utilization of the Citizen Participation Act.
In another case, Wright Development Group v. Walsh (2010), the Illinois Supreme Court determined that not only do individuals have grounds for using the Citizen Participation Act to protect their First Amendment rights, but also that individuals’ comments are protected when speaking to the press regarding the issue at hand, because speaking to the media is in furtherance of achieving a favorable government action. In this case, in addition to an individual being sued for speaking out against a company, two newspapers (the Chicago Sun-Times and the Pioneer Press) were sued as well.
In Sandholm v. Kuecker (2012), the plaintiff sued the defendants for defamation. When the defendant invoked the First Amendment and asked for dismissal pursuant to the Citizen Participation Act, the court denied the motion because “[i]f a plaintiff’s complaint genuinely seeks redress for damages from defamation or other intentional torts and, thus, does not constitute a SLAPP, it is irrelevant whether the defendants’ actions were ‘genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.’” Thus, the court distinguished the application of the Citizen Participation Act from true cases of defamation.
For members of the public who engage in protected political activity, anti-SLAPP legislation is a crucial tool. While it can not prevent someone from being sued in the first place, it does provide a critical legal defense. Illinois courts have interpreted the Citizen Participation Act’s language broadly. Although the history of its use is short, in the future the Citizen Participation Act and other states’ anti-SLAPP laws should prove to be valuable for holding accountable those who attempt to trample on the constitutional rights of citizens, as well as encouraging more participation by the public in general.
2013 College Summer Intern
CAC folks know the difference between democracy in theory vs. democracy in reality.
A documentary that takes an irreverent, nonpartisan look at voting in America. Where is the Electoral College? Where is the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution? Chicago airing is WTTW 10/30/12 at 9:30PM. For show info and national broadcast airing schedule, go to: http://electoraldysfunction.org/
"Big Sky, Big Money" on FRONTLINE
In a special investigation in collaboration with Marketplace, FRONTLINE travels to the remote epicenter of the campaign finance debate for a tale of money, politics, and intrigue. How has the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision changed campaigns in America? Ask Montana, which has tried to challenge the ruling in court, is investigating alleged campaign abuses, and is playing host to a bitter race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.FRONTLINE correspondent and Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal reports.
For show info, airing schedule (begins airing 10/30/12) and a 30-second trailer visit:
Beyond the Chicago Border:
Ms. Dee Longfellow asked in her 9/27/12 editorial, “Is anyone else offended?” by the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC) and Elmhurst College hosting Dr. Dick Simpson of UIC to discuss his latest academic paper on political corruption. The tone was sarcastic musing of why a Chicagoan should come to suburbia to talk about corruption. This is why: Corruption does not stop at the Chicago border. Dr. Simpson is nationally recognized for his vast experience in addressing government issues, both as an insider and a watchdog. He has spent a career documenting the “corruption tax” paid when public officials serve for personal interest rather than the public interest. His sixth report, "Green Grass and Graft: Corruption in the Suburbs" documents convictions beyond Chicago’s borders and offers tangible reform solutions.
CAC was also identified as “the local hot bed of political dirt digging” and an organization that protests indiscriminately. We are an award-winning community legal organization that for 20 years has worked to build democracy by strengthening the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. CAC’s work starts in Elmhurst and extends statewide. Our resources are free, our doors are open to the public, and information about CAC is available at www.citizenadvocacycenter.org. The following are a few highlights of CAC’s work in Elmhurst:
1) Protecting First Amendment Free Speech rights via a federal lawsuit and bringing statewide and national media exposure to anti-democratic activity in City Hall. We also worked with District 205 to protect Free Speech rights during public comment (twice);
2) Reforming Illinois’ Tax Increment Financing law based on issues identified in the Elmhurst TIF 3 creation process and helping a community group organize to reduce TIF incentives approved on a TIF 1 project from the initial $5 million plus request to $1.2 million;
3) Questioning finance issues at City Hall. One inquiry led to monies being repaid; and
4) Helping individuals successfully organize. Examples include, placing referenda on the ballot, addressing a gas station leak, helping a local journalist protest the selling of a local paper, and helping organize a march to promote a historic preservation ordinance.
People worldwide are fighting for the freedoms Americans have, yet very few Americans actually engage in the democratic process. If a qualifier for “political dirt digging” and indiscriminate protesting includes teaching people interested in government issues how to successfully use First Amendment freedoms, along with community lawyers enforcing democratic rights, I regard that as a compliment.
Ms. Terry Pastika
Executive Director/ Community Lawyer
Citizen Advocacy Center
By Karen Chadra Email the author
Jessica Ahlquist, who sued her school to have a prayer removed from the gymnasium wall, is speaking to government students Tuesday, during Constitution Week.
What started as muted frustration among some parents of York High School government students over the choice of a speaker for Constitution Week is now a multi-pronged debate—in some cases heated—between educators, parents, atheists and the Illinois Family Institute.
Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst selected this year's speaker for Constitution Week, as they have for the past two years.
"The CAC does the legwork as far as finding and selecting speakers and we make ourselves available that week for the person to come to our school," said Charles Ovando, Research and Social Sciences Division chairman at York.
The speaker this year, 17-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, is an atheist from Rhode Island who filed a federal lawsuit to force her high school to remove a religious banner that had hung in the school's gymnasium for 49 years.
Atheism is a polarizing subject, as Ahlquist found. She won her battle to have the prayer removed, but bullying and threats in her school and community forced her to withdraw from school.
And here in Elmhurst, a predominantly Christian/Catholic community, the polarization continues. The CAC refers to Ahlquist as a "defender of free speech" who stood up against tremendous adversity in the name of democracy. But some parents see the visit as a means to thrust liberal talking points on teenagers.
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Be sure to check out the comments where a lively discussion is taking place!