Johnston County school board member Michelle Antoine filed a lawsuit this week against the school board but is keeping the details secret from the public.
State Superior Court Judge Thomas Lock granted Antoine’s motion to seal the complaint and any related motions and any temporary restraining orders. In her motion, Antoine said sealing the document is warranted because it “contains information that, the release of which, would constitute a publishing of defamatory material against plaintiff and would irreparably harm plaintiff.”
“There is no reasonable alternative to sealing the document, as it is the only alternative that prevents further harm against plaintiff,” according to Antoine’s motion.
Second lawsuit by a school board member
It’s the second lawsuit filed by a Johnston County school board member against the board.
In June, school board member Ronald Johnson filed a federal lawsuit against multiple parties, including the school board and the Town of Smithfield, over his dismissal from the Smithfield Police Department and indictment on criminal charges.
Antoine was the only board member not named as a defendant by Johnson in his lawsuit. Both his lawsuit and the criminal case against him are ongoing.
Steven Walker, Antoine’s attorney said in an email Wednesday, “I cannot make any further comment on why the complaint was filed under seal other than what is contained in the motion to seal.”
Walker used to be Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s general counsel.
The school district and school board chair Lyn Andrews, who was individually named as a defendant, did not immediately return The News & Observer’s request for comment.
The school board has scheduled an emergency meeting for Thursday to consult with its attorney.
‘Unheard of’ to seal complaint
In the motion granted by the judge, Antoine says the complaint should only be made available to the attorneys in the case “with strict confidentiality in place.”
Antoine says the document should be sealed until further order of the court, or at least until a hearing on her motion for preliminary injunction is decided. A hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Monday.
Walker said that the complaint will be made public, if ever, when the court determines that it is appropriate to do so.
“It’s incredibly uncommon to the point of being unheard of” to seal a complaint, according to Brooks Fuller, director of the NC Open Government Coalition and the Sunshine Center at Elon University.
Fuller said there’s a presumptive right under the state Constitution and the Open Public Meetings Act to view court documents. He said complaints are only sealed with regularity when they deal with serious privacy concerns, such as juveniles or people filing under a pseudonym.
“The public, the press, have the right to know what’s going on in court unless there’s serious overriding interests to the contrary,” Fuller said in an interview.
Grievance against board member?
Antoine, a member of the conservative group Citizen Advocates For Accountable Government, was elected to the board in November. She’s one of the Republican members of the officially non-partisan school board.
Antoine had campaigned on issues such as opposing Critical Race Theory, with statements such as “schools must stop being centers of social justice.” Johnson had supported her election bid.
After winning, Antoine unsuccessfully backed Johnson’s bid to become school board chair.
On Tuesday, the school board removed from the agenda an item on a report pursuant to an employee grievance. Andrews said it was being removed “per court order.” The employee grievance appeared to be directed against Antoine.
“While we all can’t talk about it, I can,” April Lee, a parent and former president of the Johnston County Association of Educators, said during public comment. “It is unfortunate that Michelle Antoine so desperately does not want the public to know what she has done, that she went so far as, I’m not going to be specific.”
Andrews and Antoine told Lee she had to stop, with Antoine warning that “we’ll ask for you to be removed.”