By Bob Cloud, Special to the City Times
Two members of the Stevens Point school board have agreed to drop a defamation lawsuit against the Stevens Point City Times.
The lawsuit was filed in March by school board members Kim Shirek and Lisa Totten. The two alleged 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.
Attorneys for both sides signed a stipulation for dismissal. The document awaits the judge’s final approval.
The stipulation is for an unconditional dismissal of all claims with no monetary awards for either party. The dismissal is with prejudice, which means the case cannot be brought back to court.
Shirek and Totten’s decision to agree to the dismissal of the case comes after the Stevens Point City Times filed a motion for sanctions and motion for summary judgment requesting, not only that the judge dismiss the case, but also award the City Times its expenses and attorneys’ fees, as argued in that motion by Kurt Goehre, the attorney for the newspaper.
The motion filed by the City Times argued that the allegations in the complaint had “absolutely no merit” and “the article was truthful based on the statements and evidence compiled.”
The motion went on to argue that the “entire lawsuit is nothing more than an improper use of judicial resources in furtherance of Plaintiffs’ unrelated and personal objectives.”
The school board members’ civil complaint alleged 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 alleged in particular that a Feb. 6 article about a recall attempt against the school board members 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.
After Portage County judges recused themselves, citing potential conflicts of interest, Wood County Judge Todd Wolf took the case.
In mid-June, Wolf granted an order to protect 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 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- argued everything printed in the City Times’ articles was truthful based on the statements and evidence compiled.
They also 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.”
Patrick Wood, CEO of MMC said the company fought the suit because of the dangerous precedent it set for news reporters.
“MMC will continue to fight hard to preserve First Amendment rights of the media while diligently reporting news to our communities,” Wood said of the dismissal.
Shirek and Totten are both serving their second term on the Stevens Point Board of Education. Their terms expire in April 2016.