- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A Pennsylvania school board member has sued his local newspaper and three of its journalists, claiming they violated state wiretapping laws by reporting on a secretly recorded audiotape of a closed-door meeting on the search for a new superintendent.

Manheim Township School Board member Bill Murry also alleged in the lawsuit filed Tuesday that the LNP newspaper company in Lancaster, two reporters and an editor defamed him and invaded his privacy. Manheim Township, located in Lancaster County, is a heavily suburban district that serves more than 5,000 students.

Murry claims LNP produced a “false narrative” that the board conspired to violate the state Sunshine Act, a law that requires many government meetings to be open to the public. Violations are a summary offense, less serious than a misdemeanor.

“Murry and his fellow board members understand that they are not immune from public criticism,” his lawyers wrote. “But what Murry and the board never anticipated was a prolonged series of unfair, one-sided and at times flatly untrue series of articles about the school board by LNP. Nor did anyone expect that the newspaper would use a criminally obtained audio recording to facilitate its attack on Murry and his colleagues.”

Publisher Bob Krasne said the LNP Media Group acted properly under the First Amendment and other laws, and that it stands by its reporting.

“One of the great things about this country is it’s governed by the rule of law, and we have processes in place where people can assert whatever they believe to be true,” Krasne said. “We have a judicial process that enables an unbiased finder of fact to determine what the facts actually are. We’ll let the judicial process play out, and I’m very confident of our position.”

LNP reported in February 2016 it obtained an audiotape that captured Murry and other board members making plans to have individual conversations about hiring a search firm, rather than discussing it as a group, in order to avoid the public disclosure required by the Sunshine Act.

Pennsylvania law generally prohibits secret audiotapes of people who have not consented, if they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, said Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. She said that as a general rule, if journalists don’t break the law, they have the right to publish information they were given.

LNP reported last year it was not clear who made the tape, and Krasne said Wednesday the newspaper still does not know the source.

The lawsuit names as defendants the publishing company, Executive Editor Barbara Hough Roda and reporters Susan Baldrige and Kara Newhouse.

In December, the state attorney general’s office announced that after a review, it would not file any charges against board members regarding the Sunshine Act.

Murry claims his privacy rights were violated when LNP identified his real estate development company by name, which he said was of no news value and not connected to school board business.

He is seeking a published retraction, removal of the articles from LNP’s website and monetary damages.

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