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Gaston Commissioners Withdraw Controversial Libel Suit But Say They'll Pull Ads From Gazette

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Gaston County commissioners announced Friday they'll drop a controversial libel suit against The Gaston Gazette but say they'll now try to withhold advertising money from the local newspaper.

The dispute stems from a November article about the process commissioners used to authorize four workers’ compensation settlements. Commissioners filed a libel suit later that month against the Gazette and parent company Gannett.

WFAE spoke to four First Amendment experts who said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against libel suits filed by public bodies. They said the Gaston suit would almost certainly be quickly dismissed.

On Friday, commissioners issued a statement saying they consulted with County Attorney Jonathan Sink in closed session Thursday and decided to withdraw the suit. The statement says commissioners still believe the article was "reckless and irresponsible," but "the County must do the right thing by its taxpayers and stakeholders countywide and drop what could end up being an expensive lawsuit, win or lose.”

However, Gaston’s taxpayers will foot the $3,600 bill for Charlotte lawyer Jeremy Stephenson to do preliminary work and file the suit. The statement says that is within the county attorney's purchasing authority.

Commissioners now say they’ll try to shift county advertising from the Gazette to another paper of record. The county spends $70,000 to $100,000 a year on Gazette advertising, the statement said.

Neither commissioners' Chairman Tom Keigher nor attorney Jonathan Buchan, who represents the Gazette, could immediately be reached for comment.

So far there has been no public discussion on the merits of filing or withdrawing the libel suit. County officials told WFAE that the original decision to sue was made in conversations between Sink and individual commissioners. After WFAE raised questions about how the suit was approved, commissioners put an item on their Dec. 8 agenda to vote on allocating $100,000 to retain Stephenson's firm and pursue the suit.

However, that in-person meeting, which included a public comment period, was canceled because of "a potential COVID case." Thursday's meeting was a virtual special meeting called for "matters requiring immediate attention." The agenda included a closed session to consult with the board's attorney on another case, C. Picard v. Gaston County, but did not mention the libel suit.

North Carolina's Open Meetings Law allows public bodies to hold closed-door sessions to consult with attorneys.

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