New lawsuit seeks Pr. William superintendent’s Twitter messages

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Steven Walts, Superintendent of Schools, Prince William County, Va., Schools testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007, before the House Committee on Overnight and Government Reform Committee hearing on drug resistant infections and the consequences for public health. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

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Former school board Chair Ryan Sawyers is asking the court to order the release of 20,000 private Twitter messages between students and Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Walts.

The move follows a separate, $2.35 million defamation lawsuit filed by Sawyers on July 12 after a complaint about Walts’ Twitter use led the superintendent to stop using the account, @SuperPWCS, in May. Before closing the account, Walts posted a video message defending himself while making statements that Sawyers claims defamed him. The video has since been removed.

The school division has rejected Freedom of Information Act requests from InsideNoVa and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to release all the messages with students. The school system claims they are part of the superintendent’s personal papers, an exception allowed under state law.

A selection of messages to specific students was released in response to an earlier request from a citizen, which led to the complaint being filed against Walts. The school system has said it will release messages requested by a parent between Walts and that parent’s student.

Prince William Circuit Court Judge Kimberly Irving was expected to hear arguments on the release of the Twitter messages in a hearing Aug. 27.

On Tuesday, Sawyers and his attorney, Evan Mayo with Tremblay & Smith PLLC, and school division lawyer, John Conrad of The Conrad Firm, met virtually with the judge, but the hearing ended with no action.

Sawyers is asking the court to require the division to prove its assertions for why the division withheld the messages. In addition, Sawyers asked the court to order the school board to produce the messages or order the board to redact exempt portions and produce the records. Sawyers also asked the court to order the board to pay Sawyers’ legal fees.

Mayo asked Irving to continue the hearing until Thursday, because he had not had a chance to read a 60-page response filed on behalf of Walts and the school board.

Sawyers said he made the FOIA request April 23 and staff denied the request, saying the documents were exempt from release.

In a memo filed with the court Aug. 12 in the defamation lawsuit, two other members of Walts’ legal team, Matthew Nieman and Jason Ross at Jackson Lewis P.C., defended his use of the Twitter account, referencing a $110,000 third-party investigation that ended in July.

“An extensive review of Dr. Walts’ use of the Twitter account by an outside law firm revealed absolutely no suggestion of improper usage of the account to contact underage students,” according to the memo filed with the court.

Walts announced Aug. 13 he will retire when his contract expires in June 2021.

Walts’ lawyer argued in the court filing that Sawyers’ defamation complaint fails to state a cause of action or facts that can lead to relief. They argue the allegedly defamatory comments include statements that are Walts’ opinion, not statements he asserted as facts. In the video, Walts said a former school board member and his proxies have launched “a partisan and personal attack on me,” slandering Walts for “purely political purposes.”

“While I am not concerned about these attacks directed at me, I am significantly concerned they have chosen to bully and attack PWCS students online,” Walts said in the video. “Their actions reflect their character. I will not allow children in PWCS to become political pawns for those who seek to damage me during my contract renewal period.”

Sawyers is arguing that Walts’ “false and defamatory statements damaged Sawyers’ personal and professional reputation by alleging conduct that is reprehensible to him as a former school board chairman, businessperson, coach and father,” according to the lawsuit.

The video had more than 29,000 views before it was removed, according to the lawsuit.

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