City Times Staff
A Wood County judge has scheduled a 12-person jury trial in a case involving two members of the Stevens Point School Board who allege defamation and negligence against the Stevens Point City Times.
The trial is set to begin February 23, 2016.
The lawsuit was filed in March by school board members Kim Shirek and Lisa Totten. The two allege the City Times, along with Editor-in-Chief Brandi Makuski, knowingly reported inaccurate information regarding the behavior of Shirek and Totten both in and out of the board room.
Their civil complaint alleges that since November 2014, the City Times has published articles critical of the plaintiffs which contained false and inaccurate statements about the plaintiffs’ conduct at school board meetings. The complaint also alleges that a Feb. 6 article about a recall attempt against the plaintiffs implies that they “engaged in a coordinated campaign of criminal activity” including harassment of those involved in the recall.
After the suit was filed, Jacob Manian and Matthew O’Neill, the attorneys representing Shirek and Totten, served Makuski with a list of questions, a request for production of documents, and a notice of deposition.
Among other things, they sought information about Makuski’s sources and required that she “identify each and every individual with whom you communicated, or with whom you attempted to communicate in order to investigate and/or to confirm the veracity of the information” regarding the alleged harassment of those involved in the recall.
In mid-June, Judge Todd Wolf granted a motion for an order protecting the identity of any source of news or information as it relates to the articles.
Under state law, public officials who sue reporters for defamation must not only prove that the alleged facts are false, but they must also prove actual malice—that they were made knowingly and with the intent to harm the official’s reputation.
“To meet this high burden, requiring evidence that the newspaper knew the statements were false or recklessly regarded their truth or falsity, plaintiffs will necessarily need to burrow into the true sources, or lack of sources, behind the article,” Manian and O’Neill argued in a May 15 brief. George Burnett and Kurt Goehre, the attorneys for Makuski and MMC- the City Times parent company- responded by stating that “everything printed in that article was truthful based on the statements and evidence compiled” and, furthermore, they indicated prior to Plaintiffs’ filing the suit that the “threat of litigation against the Stevens Point City Times may merely be another attempt to uncover the source of certain ‘leaks’ from closed session meetings of the School Board.”
MMC and Makuski are required to compile their witness list by early December 2015.