Judge Won’t Dismiss Official’s Suit Against N.C. Paper

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(AP) A judge ruled yesterday that a jury should decide whether a newspaper article defamed former Durham County Commissioner Joe Bowser.

Attorneys for The Herald-Sun of Durham, N.C., had asked Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan to throw out the case.

Morgan denied the lawyers’ argument that the May 2004 story accurately reported the contents of a letter from a county official to the Board of Commissioners.

“I’m not saying that it’s substantially correct or not,” said Morgan. “It’s a jury question.”

The ruling clears the way for lawyers to begin taking depositions and requesting documents. The judge’s decision is a rare finding in cases brought by a public official against a media outlet. Such cases have a higher burden for the plaintiff to overcome.

The story was published May 21 under the headline “Letter accuses commissioner of shady acts.”

The story was about a letter from a county official who describes an April 2003 encounter she had with Bowser, who was then vice chairman of the county commissioners.

According to the letter written by Gayle Harris, assistant director of the county health department, Bowser twice asked to discuss a county employee named Lois Murphy. The letter was distributed to commissioners in May after Jackye Knight, the county’s human resources director, filed an ethics complaint against Bowser.

Bowser’s lawsuit, filed days before he lost his bid for re-election in the July Democratic primary, cites a sentence in the article that begins, “In the letter, Assistant Health Director Gayle Harris says Bowser attempted to pressure her to help his friend Lois Murphy. …”

Bowser’s attorney, Charles Putterman, of Raleigh, said at the hearing that the sentence casts a false and negative light on Bowser.

“The newspaper clearly strayed in this case,” Putterman said.

John Bussian, an attorney for the Herald-Sun, said the paper has a right to characterize documents and that the sentence is an accurate description of Harris’ letter.

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