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Countersuit blasts Lex-Rich 5 school board member's libel suit for ‘chilling’ free speech

John A. Carlos II (copy)

Lexington-Richland School District Five Vice Chairman Ken Loveless at Spring Hill High School, on July 23, 2020. Loveless has filed two libel lawsuits over comments made against him on social media. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A woman accused of libel by a Lexington-Richland Five school board member over comments posted on Facebook has filed a countersuit, saying the public official's claims were an abuse of the legal system meant to silence critics and stifle free speech.

Board Vice Chairman Ken Loveless filed a lawsuit on March 16 against Leslie Stiles, an administrator of a Facebook group titled “Deep Dive Into D5” that has been critical of the current board.

That complaint came just two days after Loveless sued Columbia resident Kevin Scully, who Loveless also accused of posting libelous comments on the Facebook page.

Loveless argues both Stiles and Scully made false and defamatory statements that "harm him and his reputation, and subject him to humiliation and ridicule" and is seeking unspecified damages. 

The complaints follow a year of upheaval for the 17,000-student district that covers schools in Irmo and Chapin.

Following a 2020 election that shifted the makeup of the school board, a rift formed between members and then-Superintendent Christina Melton over safety protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to emails released by the district. It ended with Melton resigning.

She left with a $226,000 severance last June soon after she was named the state’s superintendent of the year.

Stiles' lawyer Chris Kenney called out the legal challenge as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit in court filings.

"This litigation is frivolous harassment of a private citizen by a public official designed to chill her speech and participation in matters of public concern," court documents read, adding that the lawsuit violates the First Amendment.

"This is a misuse or perversion of legal process that is not a legitimate legal objective but an abuse of the legal system to achieve an illegitimate objective," Stiles' argument went on to say.

Loveless, through his lawyer, declined to comment.

In her Facebook criticism of Loveless, Stiles referenced an informal opinion from the state Ethics Commission related to the board member's business interests.

Loveless' company entered into subcontracting work with a company that was overseeing construction of a new elementary school in the district. The ethics opinion stated Loveless must recuse himself from board votes involving the company.

Stiles stated Loveless refused to recuse himself for a length of time, according to court filings.

The ethics questions surrounding Loveless and his company have since turned into a full-blown complaint and ongoing investigation by the Ethics Commission, reported by The State after Loveless waived his right to confidentiality.

Loveless' libel lawsuit also went on to hold Stiles responsible for posts made by other people on the Facebook page, for which she was an administrator.

Those comments include several for which Loveless is suing Scully.

According to court documents, Scully referred to Loveless as “Crooked Ken,” called him a "loser," questioned whether the board member followed ethics rules and posted the comment, “What do you get when you elect the dumbest people in the district to be in charge of education?”

Kenney argues the post made by Stiles and others on the Facebook page, who she declined to "censor" as administrator, do not meet the standard of libel because they were either true statements or personal opinions about a public official.

"Loveless’s claim is barred because any purported harm to Loveless’s reputation were the result of his own actions and were unrelated to and not caused by the conduct Stiles is alleged to have taken," court filings read.

Court filings also went on to point out that Loveless is running for reelection in November and suggests, by using legal proceedings to eliminate criticism of himself, it improves his chances of winning.

Stiles is seeking to recover legal fees and asks that the court go further in penalizing Loveless.

"Loveless’s intentional, wrongful conduct should also be punished with an award of exemplary damages to punish him and discourage others from engaging in similar conduct," court filings read.

In a post on the “Deep Dive Into D5” Facebook page on April 13, Stiles urged members to vote in the upcoming election and to "keep paying attention to what elected leaders are doing. This lawsuit is a bully tactic designed to shut me up and scare other parents from participating in our school district. That cannot stand."

"I’m just a mom of three young children. Like many of you, I volunteer in our schools, I participate in our PTO, and I follow the work of our elected District trustees with great interest," Stiles wrote. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that a public official would sue me for exercising my First Amendment right to speak about our public schools or for the things other people said in a Facebook group I created."

This lawsuit is the fourth filed involving Lex-Rich Five board members in the past several months. The district sued former Superintendent Stephen Hefner in November 2021 in a dispute over hiring an interim superintendent.

Hefner complained after the district hired current superintendent Akil Ross and paid him through his company. The district sued Hefner, claiming he made false statements about Ross and attempted “malicious interference” with the superintendent’s contract, according to court filings.

Hefner denied those allegations in a response to the lawsuit, which he called frivolous.

Lex-Rich Five also is facing a lawsuit from The State newspaper in Columbia over an open-meetings dispute in the handling of former Superintendent Melton’s settlement to leave the district.

Board Chairwoman Jan Hammond is facing allegations that she violated state ethics law in using her district email account to campaign in a school board election. She has a hearing before the Ethics Commission on April 21.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect that three lawsuits were filed by either the Lexington-Richland 5 School Board or a member of that board. One lawsuit was filed against the board.

Reach Jessica Holdman at Follow her @jmholdman on Twitter.