LANCASTER – Leaked audio and a series of articles regarding closed-door meetings by the Manheim Township School District Board of Education have resulted in a defamation lawsuit against a Lancaster County news outlet, as the former president of the board is alleging an effort to ruin his reputation.
William Murry is claiming Lancaster Online knowingly published “fake news” and violated the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, but LNP Media Group, the site's owner, says the plaintiff is showing an ignorance of the First Amendment and plans to defend itself against the claims.
Murry filed suit on Feb. 21 in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, versus LNP Media Group, Inc. of Lancaster, the publication group’s executive Barbara Hough Roda, staff writers Susan Baldridge of Conestoga and Kara Newhouse of Millersville, plus unknown John Doe defendants.
Murry labeled the defendants’ reporting as “baseless," referring to stories they published describing private meetings surrounding the resignation of former Manheim Township School District Superintendent John Nodecker and the search for his successor. He believes the news outlet's articles accused the school board of deliberately violating the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act during that process by meeting privately on a number of occasions, away from public scrutiny.
“While Murry was a member and President of the Board of the Manheim Township School District, defendants irresponsibly, and for the purpose of embarrassing and harming plaintiff, published information from a criminally-obtained audio recording of a school board meeting, and falsely accused plaintiff of a criminal violation of law, namely, the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act,” Murry’s lawsuit states.
“Defendants’ use and publication of illegally-obtained information and of defamatory statements were intentional, wanton and malicious, and have caused significant embarrassment and humiliation to plaintiff and injury to his reputation and to his private business,” the suit continues.
LNP Publisher Robert Krasne issued a statement to the Pennsylvania Record in response to Murry's lawsuit:
“As the leading source of news and information for Lancaster County, we at LNP take our responsibilities seriously. Our communities want us to hold all levels of government, and all government officials accountable to the citizens they are elected to serve. LNP will not waver from this commitment and we will use all tools available to our journalists that are guaranteed by the First Amendment and other applicable law. Our integrity as a reliable news source, particularly in these times, and our obligation to our readers demands it.
“LNP believes that the claims asserted against us by Mr. Murry in his suit that arise out of his actions while he was president of the Manheim Township School Board are baseless, show an ignorance of and offend free press principles and protections of the First Amendment, and we will vigorously defend against them.”
The reporting began in 2016, and Murry admitted the school board met in private in an article titled, "Manheim Township school board admits violating state Sunshine Act with closed-door meetings." LNP had reported the board met 11 times in private the previous year.
Further reporting centered on leaked audio from a private meeting in January 2016 in which Murry "arranged a series of one-on-one telephone conversations with members late last week in a deliberate attempt to avoid public scrutiny and circumvent the open-meetings law," an LNP article read.
LNP called for Murry's resignation in an editorial, as did a petition with the signatures of more than 600.
Murry is accusing the media organization of prioritizing website traffic and financial gain made through advertising revenue, over proper, truthful and objective reporting. Attached as Exhibit A to his complaint is an article on "fake news."
Though Murry was ultimately replaced as president of the school board in December, he currently remains a board member.
For counts of violating the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act, defamation and invasion of privacy/false light, the plaintiff is seeking an injunction enjoining the defendants from continuing to publish, use and disseminate excerpts and quotes from the leaked audio recording of the Jan. 28, 2016 Manheim Township School Board meeting; to require the defendants to remove the articles from their website; damages for the reputational, emotional and economic harm suffered as a result of defendants’ conduct; punitive damages; and attorneys’ fees and costs.
The plaintiff is represented by Matthew H. Haverstick, Zachary C. Glaser and Joshua J. Voss of Kleinbard, LLC, in Philadelphia.
Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas case CI-17-00692
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org