A judge on Wednesday threw out a defamation case that Hanover County Supervisor Sean Davis had brought against Style Weekly.
Michael Levy, a Stafford County Circuit Court judge who heard the case in Hanover Circuit Court, granted the Richmond-based alternative newspaper’s motion to throw out the case before sending it to a jury for deliberation.
Levy said that, as a public official, Davis faced a higher threshold for proving he had been defamed.
“You’re required to have a thicker skin,” Levy said of public officials.
Davis said after the hearing that he felt the case would have turned out more in his favor had it been allowed to go to jurors. He was seeking at least $1.35 million in damages.
“We have a system, I believe, in place in America where a jury should decide,” Davis said. “I think the judge is probably a fine adjudicator, but in today’s climate with the media being what it is, it’s a very, very tough fight.”
Davis said he is still considering whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.
Levy went through 16 statements that were included in articles reporter Peter Galuszka wrote in 2015 that suggested Davis was improperly using his position as a supervisor to influence Hanover schools. The judge found the statements were substantially true, involved an opinion or were not specifically about Davis. The judge found that Style Weekly’s coverage did not display “actual malice” toward Davis.
Davis’ complaint arose from a Dec. 8, 2015, article, “Are Politics Threatening an Open Educational Environment in Hanover?” The article suggests Davis interfered with classroom instruction at Hanover High School and had teachers suspended or disciplined “if they present ideas or images that Davis considers too liberal.”
The article cited a letter submitted to Attorney General Mark R. Herring from a parent who asked state police to investigate Davis for intimidation of teachers and staff. The letter pointed to a popular English teacher with whom Davis had issues “because of what he said in class and because of a wall of photographs and drawings kept in a student newspaper activities office,” the article says.
The article, citing the letter, goes on to state that the teacher was given a three-day suspension that was dropped after the teacher hired a lawyer. Davis’ lawsuit also cited another passage from the article in which a Hanover High School parent expressed worry “that school officials won’t confront Davis.”
On Wednesday in court, Davis’ attorney, Steven Biss, took aim at the allegations made against his client. Biss argued that Galuszka and Style relied on biased sources, and failed to interview others, such as members of the Hanover School Board. The defense attorney accused Galuszka of failing to speak with anyone who had firsthand knowledge of whether the charges levied against his client were correct.
Biss said that it was false that Davis intervened to affect School Board policy and that Davis was never involved in the banning of any materials.
Biss accused Style Weekly of being enticed by a catchy storyline because “corruption sells.”
“They wanted to write a story about a supervisor who abused his power to get teachers suspended,” Biss said.
The publication was not interested in telling the real story, which wasn’t even worthy of a headline, Biss said.
Had Galuszka and Style Weekly dug further, Biss argued, “they would have found out there’s no censorship in Hanover schools.”
But Conrad Shumadine, the defense attorney for Style Weekly and Galuszka, doubled down on the veracity of the coverage.
Shumadine noted that Galuszka sent Davis 12 specific questions laying out what his reporting had turned up. The emailed questions presented a chance for Davis to point out other things Galuszka could look into, but instead Davis responded with a statement that was published in full in the first Style Weekly article, Shumadine said.
“This is the primary source,” Shumadine said, referring to Davis.
Shumadine said Galuszka based his story on eight sources and that the reporter believed what he was being told.
“Most sources journalists deal with have an ax to grind. That does not mean they are not telling the truth,” Shumadine said.
Shumadine argued that Davis’ actions as a county supervisor reflected interference in school matters at the highest level.
The judge said that one of the things weighing on his mind as he made the ruling was that Davis had been given a chance to respond before publication. After his decision, the judge dismissed jurors who had been called to hear the case.
Shumadine declined to comment after the hearing. Galuszka said he was pleased by the ruling, but declined to comment further.
Style Weekly posted a statement on its Twitter feed from Publisher Lori Waran.
“We are thrilled that this judgment affirmed Style Weekly’s rights to vigorously cover our community,” Waran said. “We are grateful and humbled to serve the Richmond metro area and will continue to do so with integrity. What a truly wonderful day for the First Amendment.”
For his part, Davis said afterward that witnesses who testified in support of his case “corroborated the truth, and I think that’s what’s important.”