After a news story exposed a massive data breach at the Paterson Public Schools, superintendent Eileen Shafer threatened to sue the Paterson Times for purported “serious reputational harm” to the school district, a lawsuit that would be prohibited by law. The letter also suggested the district would use legal means to obtain materials related to the breach held by the Times, which would be prohibited by the state’s reporter’s shield law.
Shafer issued her threat in a letter signed by the district’s attorney Robert E. Murray. Her spokesman Paul Brubaker emailed the letter at 4:42 p.m. on Monday, 52 minutes after the story appeared on the frontpage of the newspaper website.
“This is serious reputational harm to the entire school district. Thus, a civil court action must be pursued,” reads Murray’s letter. He asserts the breach, which claimed more than 23,000 account passwords and was not detected until the Paterson Times brought it to the district’s attention, has caused the school system to be “unfairly held out for ridicule in the community.”
Murray makes various threats of “investigation” and “prosecution” and “take appropriate legal action” in his letter. He also mischaracterizes a conference call held on Monday morning between district officials and a reporter during which school officials were first informed of the breach.
His letter states the identity of the perpetrator of the breach may “possibly [be] known” by a reporter. The perpetrator used a fictitious email account to contact Paterson Times to sell the information, but was rebuffed. He or she never revealed their identity.
Furthermore, Murray falsely claims in the letter a reporter’s account stated the perpetrator “may not be working alone.”
Murray concludes the letter by making a demand. “As to the illegally obtained material that was taken from our computer system and given to you, Paterson demands these documents be returned with no copies have been made or distributed,” reads the letter.
New Jersey has one of the strongest reporter’s privileges in the U.S., allowing journalists to protect both sources and information.
Prominent First Amendment and media law lawyers slammed the district for its attempt to threaten and intimidate.
Walter Luers, attorney for the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the letter, with its threat of a lawsuit, aims to intimidate and stifle coverage of the breach.
“Such a lawsuit would be outrageous,” said Luers.
Luers said the district should focus on working with authorities to both investigate the data breach and shore up its “woefully lacking” electronic security systems.
Shafer has no grounds for a lawsuit, said multiple media attorneys. Government entities cannot sue for defamation. In the landmark 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, “For good reason, no court of last resort in this country has ever held, or even suggested, that prosecutions for libel on government have any place in the American system of jurisprudence.”
“I’m shocked that the lawyer of a large school district has no idea what the law is and is threatening a bona fide reporter with a lawsuit that he can’t even bring,” said Bruce Rosen, a prominent media law attorney. “He should know better.”
Murray did not respond to a message seeking his comments for this story.
Some community activists called Shafer’s threat to sue the hometown newspaper a “misplaced” priority.
Shafer’s “focus is entirely wrong,” said activist Ernest Rucker. He praised the Paterson Times for its coverage and “community orientation.”
Corey Teague, activist and former school board member, said the district does not need to waste money on a lawsuit.
“They should use that money to fix the breach,” said Teague. He said the district needs to hire an expert to find out how the breach happened and patch up the system to prevent future hacks. “That’s where the money should go, not to sue a newspaper.”
When told Shafer is threatening to sue for “serious reputational harm” to the district, Teague remarked, “I think they suffered that long before that article came out.”
Indeed, the district has seen numerous scandals over the years. For example, the superintendent search process that led to Shafer’s appointment last year was described as “rigged” in her favor. One school board member refused to participate in the “corrupted” process.
The district also had the infamous Eastside High School basketball recruiting scandal. Shafer’s domestic partner, Karen Johnson, former principal of Eastside High School, was one of six employees faulted for the scandal in an investigation report produced by former New Jersey Supreme Court justice John E. Wallace Jr.
There was also the district’s special education debacle. 1,960 special education students were owed 18,800 hours of mandated speech services. In July 2017, Shafer promised to get them caught up. Her administration continues to struggle to address the problem.
Shafer’s threat and a possible lawsuit will force the district to “go through more embarrassment,” said Teague. She is now one of two high ranking officials in Paterson to threaten to sue the Paterson Times. Former mayor Jose “Joey” Torres threatened to sue in 2016 over a mundane news story that he felt suggested his administration created an atmosphere of “wrong-doing and shady deals.” He was later convicted on corruption charges.
Shafer did not respond to specific questions posed for this story on Thursday. One question asked whether she thought it wise to spend taxpayers’ money on a lawsuit at a time the district, one of the lowest performing in New Jersey, is laying off more than 230 employees to balance its budget. Her administration also raised local property taxes by 14-percent.
Instead, Shafer repeated a line from Murray’s letter.
Shafer’s spokesman, Brubaker, on Wednesday did not respond to questions seeking information on what steps the district has taken to address the breach. Shafer issued a statement at 5:46 p.m. on Monday, an hour after her threat letter, attempting to reassure employees their personal information was not at risk. She stated all district passwords would be changed by end of day on Tuesday.
Shafer’s administration on Wednesday did not say whether all the passwords had been changed.