U.S. Rep. Sean Casten said he won’t hold back from criticizing Awake Illinois, which espouses anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and rallied its supporters against a drag-themed library event in Downers Grove, after the group last week threatened to take legal action against him.
The Downers Grove Public Library on Monday said it was canceling the Drag Queen Bingo event for teens scheduled for Oct. 11 “due to threats that are under active investigation by law enforcement.”
Casten, a two-term Democrat from Downers Grove, has been an outspoken supporter of the event, while his Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 general election, Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau, joined Awake Illinois in calling for its cancellation.
The Naperville-based group, which got its start opposing pandemic restrictions, last week sent an email and letter to Casten alleging that he was “unlawfully exploiting the mission of Awake Illinois with defamatory claims.”
The letter — which included a “CC” to Republican attorney general candidate Thomas DeVore, an Awake Illinois ally — demanded that Casten “immediately cease and desist from further acts of defamation to any third party and remove committed acts of defamation from any third-party sites to which defamatory statements have been posted.” The group threatened possible legal action if Casten did not comply with its demands.
DeVore, who has a history of taking his critics to court, said he was not involved in drafting or sending the letter to Casten on behalf of Awake Illinois.
Casten said he has no plans to comply with the group’s demands.
“To be very clear, I do not plan on ceasing nor desisting in supporting the interests of everybody in the community I represent and making sure that there’s space for decency and kindness and love, and I don’t give a damn what Awake thinks to the contrary,” he said in an interview Monday.
After the announcement that the event was being called off, Casten backed his stance with a statement blaming Pekau and Awake Illinois for the cancellation.
“They should be ashamed of themselves. They have used their platform to promote hatred, homophobia, and bigotry,” Casten said.
“Let’s be clear. This event was canceled because, after my Republican opponent and his far-right allies at Awake Illinois publicly issued a call-to-action to their supporters, the library received severe threats that endangered our community,” the congressman said.
Awake Illinois did not respond Tuesday to multiple requests for comment. In its emailed letter to Casten, signed by Awake Illinois President Shannon Adcock, Vice President Josh McBroom and Director Steve Lucie, it did not specify which of Casten’s previous statements the group thought were defamatory.
Included with its email to Casten were an Aug. 4 news release from the congressman’s campaign criticizing Pekau for accepting an award from the group last spring. The email also included a Daily Herald article from late last month in which Casten accused Pekau of “embracing and perpetrating the group’s homophobic, bigoted attacks on the Downers Grove Public Library. ”
Geoffrey Stone, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, said the statements included with Awake Illinois’ letter provide no legal backing for a claim of defamation.
“They are just ordinary political statements that are fully protected by the First Amendment,” Stone wrote in an email. “Only factually false statements made can constitute defamation, and even then they have to be either negligently or recklessly made.”
Casten stepped up his criticism of Pekau for his connections to Awake Illinois after the group in July used social media to target a child-friendly drag event at the UpRising Bakery in northwest suburban Lake in the Hills. The group, in its own words, “blasted” the event online, warning in one post, “They’re coming for your kids, McHenry County.”
The bakery was broken into and vandalized with hateful messages the day before the event was to take place. An Alsip man was charged with a felony hate crime in connection with the incident. Awake Illinois disavowed the attack.
In his early August news release, a Casten spokesman criticized Pekau for accepting an award from the group last spring that cited his refusal to follow Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s coronavirus restrictions during the height of the pandemic.
The statement also referenced the group’s opposition to the UpRising Bakery event.
Later in August, Pekau in a Facebook post criticized the Downers Grove library event as “inappropriate,” likened it to “a library introducing kids to straight sex by holding a burlesque show,” and called on Casten to join him in denouncing it.
Instead, Casten told the Daily Herald, “My opponent refused to condemn Awake Illinois in the aftermath of the attack they provoked on UpRising bakery, and now he’s embracing and perpetrating the group’s homophobic, bigoted attacks on the Downers Grove Public Library.”
A Pekau campaign spokeswoman said Tuesday that “threats and violence are never appropriate and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
“For Sean Casten to accuse those who issued any objection to a drag show for kids at a public library of hate and violence is reprehensible,” said spokeswoman Kathleen Murphy, who is listed on Awake Illinois’ website as the group’s director of government affairs and was the lieutenant governor candidate on a GOP primary ticket with Petersburg venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan. “His view of those with whom he disagrees is the reason our politics is so toxic.”
But Casten said it’s disingenuous for groups like Awake Illinois and their allies to generate negative publicity for an event and then try to distance themselves when threats or violence occur.
“You can claim that you didn’t know that those words were going to incite people, but you knew,” Casten said, drawing a parallel to the infamous December 2020 tweet in which then-President Donald Trump wrote: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
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September 13, 2022 at 06:46PM