09/10/04 — Preemptive plea: Government can’t sue to keep you from suing

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Preemptive plea: Government can’t sue to keep you from suing

“Tell them they can’t sue me.”

That, in essence, is what the city of Burlington pleaded to North Carolina’s courts. It was referring to the Alamance News.

This has been an interesting legal case all along — the Alamance News, a weekly newspaper with 6,100 circulation, against the city of Burlington.

Although relatively small, the Alamance News is regularly heard from. It is published by the tall, hulking Tom Boney Jr., son of an equally tall, hulking father who ran the News for years and established for it a feisty reputation, which Tom Jr. has maintained.

The Alamance News is published outside of Burlington in the Alamance County seat of Graham, but it covers the city’s business. A couple of years ago, the City Council went into closed session to discuss some litigation, but a Chamber of Commerce executive was allowed into portions of the meeting, purportedly to give some advice or information. The Alamance News reporter was asked out.

Boney, to whom governmental secrecy is anathema, challenged the legality of the closed meeting, since it wasn’t closed to the Chamber man. The editor told the city and its lawyer that he wanted to see the minutes of the meeting; otherwise, he would sue.

The city’s lawyer took the position that the Chamber man, at least as he was invited into the meeting, was there as a city employee. Hence, the city attorney said, no one from the public, as it were, attended.

Moreover, the city didn’t wait for Boney to sue. It filed suit with Boney Publishers as the defendant, asking the court to settle the question and prohibit the newspaper from suing.

A Superior Court did, but Boney appealed, and last week the North Carolina Court of Appeals overruled the Superior Court. It said any suing that is done under the state’s Open Meetings Law must be done by a citizen who is denied access to a meeting. And a public body can’t go to court to deny you that right.

Published in Editorials on September 10, 2004 12:53 PM