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Vote On Gaston Commissioners' Libel Suit Delayed By 'Potential COVID Case'

Gaston County commissioners' vote to authorize $100,000 to pursue a controversial libel suit was delayed Tuesday by "a potential COVID case."

The county's news release does not offer details, but says Tuesday night's in-person meeting has been rescheduled for a virtual session at 1 p.m. Dec. 17.

Gaston was one of the first 10 counties declared a COVID-19 hot spot under a county alert system launched last month. It has logged 780 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days, almost four times the rate considered as critical community spread.

The county board's libel suit against The Gaston Gazette and parent company Gannett has raised First Amendment questions. Four experts told WFAE the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly ruled that public bodies can't sue for libel.

Tracy Philbeck, who chaired the Board of Commissioners when the suit was filed, responded that “just because it’s not an everyday occurrence for elected officials to sue a newspaper for libel doesn’t mean that such legal action isn’t warranted or allowed by law.”

On Monday commissioners elected Tom Keigher chairman of the board. Jack Brown, one of the commissioners named in the suit, was replaced by
Kim Reel Johnson, who was elected in November.

The lawsuit takes issue with an article posted Nov. 12 that raised questions about whether commissioners followed the state's Open Meetings Law in approving four workers' compensation cases.

Attorney Jeremy Stephenson filed the suit on behalf of the Board of Commissioners and seven individual members on Nov. 19, and County Attorney Jonathan Sink signed a letter on behalf of the county board agreeing to pay Stephenson $225 an hour.

But after WFAE asked repeatedly when and how the suit was authorized, county officials said it hasn't been. That vote, which would allocate $100,000 to retain Stephenson's firm, was set for Tuesday night.

The meeting included a period for public comments, with people signing up to speak on site. The county's press release says details on how people can comment at the virtual meeting are being worked out and will be released later this week.

Copyright WFAE 2020.  For more to go WFAE.org

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.