Cook County Board hopeful Dorothy Brown is fighting mad about a statement made in an opponent’s campaign ad – and she’s taking the matter to court.
Brown, who is running for board president, announced she's pressing a lawsuit that accuses Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President Terrence O’Brien of slanderering her in a campaign ad earlier this week.
The suit, filed today in Cook County circuit court, targets O'Brien, his campaign committee, and the committee's chairman Tom Caplice. It seeks $250,000 in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages, says attorney Adam Lasker, who represents Brown.
The O'Brien campaign sought to center attention on reports of funny business at the clerk's office, saying in a statement, "Stories about Clerk Brown pocketing cash from her employees have been in the headlines for years now. Frankly voters are fed up with political corruption and they need to know that Clerk Brown cannot be trusted to clean up Todd Stroger’s mess."
Brown, currently clerk of the county courts, has come under fire for her office's jeans day program, during which employees who have donated to charities can wear jeans to work.
The ad says that “ethically challenged Dorothy Brown forced employees to give her cash gifts.”
It references reports that Brown’s employees used to give her cash gifts for her birthday and Christmas, a practice she called voluntary and has since stopped.
In addition to the lawsuit, Brown is sending a letter to television news directors asking them not to air O'Brien's ad.
“The allegation is not only misleading, but is entirely untrue. There is no language in the advertisement that in any way would lead a reasonable viewer to believe that the allegation was merely the expression of opinion; rather, the statement was made as a plain assertion of fact, even though Ms. Brown has never forced any employee to give her a cash gift,” the letter says.
The letter cites several lawsuits involving political advertisements that were taken off the air.
Lasker says if television stations do not comply, they could be added as defendents.
Ted Frederickson, a lawyer and professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, says political ads are protected under the First Amendment. But only candidates for federal office are guaranteed airtime.
Under the equal opportunity law, if a television station has sold time to one candidate, it is obligated to sell airtime to that candidate’s opponents, and the content cannot be censored.
“If they’re required to run the ad because of the equal opportunity law, they’re not responsible for the content,” he says.
Still, Lasker says the issue is not about equal airtime: It's about the truth.
"Because the damage is done, the only choice she has is to sit back and lose the race" or get in front of the media to counter the O'Brien ad, he says.
Brown’s campaign released its first advertisement days before O’Brien’s attack ad aired, and it’s unclear if Brown has the funds left to purchase more airtime, though Lasker hinted a new ad is in the works.