by Eric Ginsburg
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum filed a lawsuit “in error” against the Greensboro News & Record for libel, but sought a dismissal the next day. Now the two organizations are trying to reach a deal, the museum’s lawyer said.
Just one day after being filed in Guilford County Superior Court, a lawsuit alleging multiple instances of libel in Greensboro’s daily newspaper was promptly dismissed. But that’s only a fraction of the story.
Doug Harris, the lawyer for the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, said that the museum and four of its board members filed the lawsuit “in error” against the News & Record and opinion page Editor Allen Johnson.
“There was an agreement worked out for it not to be filed, and something zigged when it should’ve zagged, and it was filed,” Harris said.
Harris declined to elaborate on how exactly someone filed the lawsuit by mistake, adding only that it was a “misunderstanding.”
The next day, Dec. 1, the suit was dismissed without prejudice, according to the case file. Harris said the museum is “talking about it now” with the News & Record and is trying to work out a deal, though he wouldn’t comment on the content of the discussions. Because the libel lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice, the museum could elect to re-file it if an agreement can’t be reached with the newspaper, Harris said.
News & Record Publisher Jeff Gauger declined to comment but directed questions to the newspaper’s legal counsel Amanda Martin, who confirmed parts of what Harris said.
“Doug Harris, who represents the museum, said that he filed that lawsuit in error and therefore he took a dismissal,” Martin said. “That’s all at this point that I can share with you.”
She would not confirm that there is any sort of negotiation or deal being worked out.
“I don’t mean to be problematic for you, but the fact that he filed the lawsuit and then took a dismissal is all that we are at liberty to say right now,” Martin added.
The suit was filed on behalf of Sit-In Movement Inc., Civil Rights Museum LLC and four board members including cofounders Melvin “Skip” Alston and Earl Jones, along with Hurley Derrickson and labor activist Richard Koritz. It named the Greensboro News & Record LLC, BH Media Group Holdings Inc, BH Media Group Inc. and specifically Allen Johnson as defendants.
The lawsuit, which may resurface, alleged that the News & Record knowingly and purposefully distorted reporting about the museum to create a false perception of the organization and its leadership in furtherance of the newspaper’s agenda. “Throughout the preservation and construction effort the defendants conducted a public campaign in the newspaper against the museum and its board of directors in which the defendants persistently forecast that the museum and its board of directors efforts would fail (which they did not) without a change in the management and leadership,” the complaint reads. “All of the preceding articles, however, although obnoxious and objectionable at least had the saving grace of being constitutionally protected free speech and free press. After the museum’s firing of Lacy Ward, the then-director of the museum (in October 2014), the defendants’ criticism reached a tipping point in which it was no longer merely critical and opinionated, but actually libel.”
The complaint walked through various specific instances where the plaintiffs claim the News & Record published information that was “completely false,” particularly with regard to the museum’s finances. In particular, the suit honed in on a front page headline, printed above the fold on Nov. 20, 2014 that read, “Museum debt close to $26M,” a claim repeated three days later in a Sunday editorial by Johnson and accompanied by a cartoon of museum co-founder and former state representative Earl Jones in a sinking ship.
The lawsuit alleged that museum representatives, including Jones, repeatedly explained to the News & Record how federal tax credits that the museum obtained function. Before the articles ran, it alleged, museum reps articulated in recorded interviews that the tax credits “were not debt by any normal understanding of debt, but instead, the money was essentially free and neither principle nor interest were repaid.”
The articles lacked any “qualifying language whatsoever” the complaint reads, and falsely portrayed that the museum “was hopelessly mired in debt and could never climb out” and that the board/museum leadership was “hopelessly inept and had cast the museum into an impossible hole” when actually no such unpaid debt existed.
The civil lawsuit, which can be found as a public record in the county clerk of court’s office, also alleged that the News & Record later made false claims about decreasing museum attendance in January 2015 and “published more falsehoods” on July 29, 2015 regarding the museum’s reserve funds and the rules that governed it. The July article “deliberately [left] out a qualifying statement” from the museum auditor and “deliberately left a false impression” with readers, the suit claimed.
The lawsuit outlines what plaintiffs argued was a willful pattern of misinformation.
“At the time the defendants published these statements, the defendants knew and maliciously intended that readers throughout the area served by the News & Record would believe these libelous statements and that belief would serve these defendants stated purpose of replacing the board and replacing the leadership of the museum,” it reads.
As a result of the newspaper’s coverage, the plaintiffs allegedly suffered damages “in the form of ridicule, humiliation, public contempt, loss of reputation, public hatred,” and under a “libel per quod” allegation in the suit, it continues by stating that the plaintiffs experienced “out-of-pocket expenses” in an effort to mitigate damages, “loss of past and future income from diminished revenue,” as well as a “loss of earning capacity in their business.”
The lawsuit said that the plaintiffs sought a retraction and an apology on Dec. 29, 2014 and Nov. 6, 2015 to no avail, though a Jan. 17, 2015 did acknowledge that no debt near $26 million existed but argued that it didn’t amount to a retraction or apology and claims none has been issued since.
The lawsuit asked “that the plaintiffs be granted damages, joint and severally, from each of the defendants, for actual damages and/or for damages from libel per se in an amount in excess of $25,000,” and that for libel per quod, that the plaintiffs “be granted punitive damages, joint and severally, from each of the defendants, in an amount in excess of $25,000.”
The claim concluded by asking that the defendants be “taxed with the costs” and asks for “other and further relief as the court deems just and proper.”