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Council sues publisher over open meetings complaint

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    NMU         NORTH CAROLINA         Freedom of Information         Nov 22, 2002    

Council sues publisher over open meetings complaint

  • When the Burlington, N.C., City Council received a complaint that it had violated the state’s open meetings law, it sued the publisher who made that complaint.

The City of Burlington, N.C., can sue a publisher who objected to closure of meetings under the open meetings law to determine if his objections were valid, an appellate court in Graham ruled Nov. 20, rejecting the newspaper’s claims that the lawsuit was harassment, intended to keep it from voicing its views to the government.

In July, Tom Boney Jr., publisher of The Alamance News in Graham, objected when the Burlington City Council permitted Sonny Wilburn, president of the county’s Chamber of Commerce, to go into a closed meeting with the council and its attorney.

An exemption to the North Carolina open meetings law allows public bodies to meet with their attorneys behind closed doors to discuss legal matters, but Boney contended that did not permit it to meet with the Chamber of Commerce as well and keep the proceedings secret.

After the meeting he wrote to the council requesting minutes of the closed portion and, instead of responding, the city filed a complaint asking the court to declare that it had complied with the law when it closed that meeting. In September superior court Judge James Spencer Jr. ruled that the city had complied with the law, that Wilburn had sat in on the closed door session acting as an “agent” of the city.

Forced to defend the lawsuit, Boney said that it was a “stereotypical” SLAPP suit, a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

In his November order, Judge Spencer noted that 17 states — but not North Carolina — have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation designed to discourage lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of freedom of speech.

But even those anti-SLAPP laws only bar “meritless” lawsuits he said. Here “it is not inconceivable that a public body may sometimes actually be motivated by a genuine desire to do the right thing,” and will not know whether to grant records or be accused of violating the law.

The News’ attorney, Hugh Stevens, of Raleigh told the Associated Press that a public body “does not have a right to sue a private citizen.” He said that in this case the city picked on someone who could and would fight back, but that “the portents for citizens at large are pretty dire here,” with the government having immensely more power and resources than an average citizen for bringing suit.

(City of Burlington v. Boney Publishers; Media counsel: Hugh Stevens, Raleigh) RD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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