An effort to expose the group responsible for distributing insulting mailers before the March primaries has sparked a debate about who and what is protected under the First Amendment.
A prominent law firm has been hired to represent McHenry County clerk candidate Janice Dalton and the Chicago-based printing company Breaker Press Co. Inc.
The law firm was brought on to keep both entities from answering a list of five questions posed by Woodstock attorney Philip Prossnitz in an April court filing.
Prossnitz believes answers to his questions could lead him to the brains behind the anonymous money source, the Illinois Integrity Fund, which Prossnitz said released “defamatory” mailers about Republican McHenry County Recorder Joe Tirio, who is a candidate for county clerk.
Those same answers could help inform the details of a defamation lawsuit Prossnitz has drafted.
Attorney Natalie Harris of the Chicago law firm Mandell Menkes LLC appeared at the case’s first court date Wednesday for both Dalton and Breaker Press.
The firm has defended defamation and invasion of privacy cases, and has handled a number of First Amendment claims.
Regardless of what information her clients have, they aren’t obligated to share it, Harris said, and forcing anonymous speakers to reveal themselves would violate the Constitution.
“American political battles are notorious for name-calling, mudslinging and heated debate. The statements in the flyers that Joe Tirio complains about are no exception,” Harris said. “The First Amendment protects precisely this type of core political speech. Joe Tirio’s efforts to silence detractors and personally profit by hauling them into court will not succeed. Respondents will vigorously object to Joe Tirio’s misguided efforts.”
Dalton and Breaker Press aren’t being labeled as the brains behind the Illinois Integrity Fund, Prossnitz said.
Rather, Tirio thinks they might have information that could help reveal who’s behind the faceless group.
It’s hard to know whether the anonymous fund is composed of one or 100 people – or whether they’re local or spread throughout the state, Tirio said.
Because Tirio does not know the identity of the people behind the flyers, he and Prossnitz are going into court using an Illinois Supreme Court rule that allows limited discovery to determine the identity of the Illinois Integrity Fund.
The respondents in the petition are the printing company, whose name appeared on the mailers, and Dalton, Tirio’s opponent for county clerk.
Dalton used language in an automated telephone call that was similar to the language used in the mailers, Prossnitz said.
Three flyers reportedly published by the Illinois Integrity Fund accused Tirio of keeping a secret taxpayer-funded slush fund to take trips and pad his payroll with patronage workers, Prossnitz said. On them, Tirio is depicted as a masked cartoon robber and referenced as “crooked Joe Tirio.”
“I think it was defamatory. ... Worse yet, its purpose was to misinform voters,” Tirio said.
Prossnitz filed a petition April 25 that aimed to interview potential informants about the names and addresses of the fund’s key players.
A proposed defamation lawsuit drafted by Prossnitz seeks $50,000 in money damages.
Tirio also has set up a GoFundMe campaign for legal fees, private investigators and reward money.
The case will pick up in court
July 25, when a judge could decide whether to allow Prossnitz to move forward with his questioning.