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Epic Charter Schools lawsuit against Sharp dismissed

Sharp
Sharp

A judge on Wednesday dismissed Epic Charter Schools’ libel and slander lawsuit against a state senator.

Epic was seeking at least $75,000 from Sen. Ron Sharp, who has been an outspoken critic of the virtual charter school system, which is the largest in the state.

Oklahoma County District Judge Cindy Truong ruled Sharp’s comments and news releases about Epic didn’t rise to the level of actual malice, the standard to prove libel and slander against a public entity.

Sharp, R-Shawnee, said he was pleased Truong dismissed the case.

“Clearly, Epic was trying to do this to destroy my credibility and to divert attention from what I was asking,” Sharp said. “The fact that they filed this just before the deadline for legislation, they clearly wanted legislators to be intimidated by this lawsuit.”

Community Strategies, the nonprofit that oversees Epic One-on-One and Epic Blended Centers, filed the lawsuit Dec. 9, four days before the bill request deadline for the Oklahoma Legislature.

The lawsuit alleged Sharp knowingly made false statements about Epic in news releases and public comments. Sharp said in multiple communications that Epic Blended Centers are unlawful in the way they count student attendance.

Epic One-on-One is a virtual learning platform available in all Oklahoma counties. Epic Blended Centers are physical learning sites in Tulsa County and Oklahoma County. Both are public charter schools that receive state funds.

Epic’s governing board voted Oct. 19 to take legal action against the state senator after sending him a cease-and-desist letter in September.

“Because Mr. Sharp knowingly and intentionally published false statements about our school that he has refused to retract, as a board, we feel no option exists other than defending our school, staff and the families we serve from malicious defamation,” the board said in a statement. “Just because an individual is elected to the Oklahoma State Legislature does not make them above the law.”

Sharp’s attorney, Lori Winland, argued during Wednesday’s hearing that Sharp was protected by state law and the First Amendment. She said he was a government official giving oversight of a public charter school.

“This is core political speech,” Winland said. “This is a public official talking about the actions of a public entity and about the expenditure of public funds. This is exactly the type of speech that the First Amendment grants the very most protection to. This speech enjoys more protection than any other kind of speech.”

Epic’s attorney, Bill Hickman, contended that the Oklahoma State Department of Education had provided Sharp with information that explained Epic Blended Centers followed the law with their attendance policies. Regardless, the state senator published a news release two weeks later on Aug. 26 saying their attendance policies violated the law.

The news release was distributed to media and published on the state Senate website.

Because Epic is a public entity, the school would have to prove Sharp committed actual malice, which is defined as knowingly making false statements or having a reckless disregard for the truth. Truong decided Sharp’s comments didn’t meet that legal standard.

The senator said in court filings that his statements were his opinion and he made good-faith efforts to make sure they were true. Sharp has maintained Epic Blended Centers are unlawful in the way they count attendance.

Superintendent Bart Banfield said Epic officials will discuss the court ruling and their legal options.

“Mr. Sharp admitted in a sworn affidavit that his statements about EPIC were only his beliefs and not actual statements of fact,” Banfield said in a statement. “We are pleased he has admitted his falsehoods against EPIC are merely his opinion and are not the truth.”

Winland argued Sharp has no liability as a government official for any damages Epic claimed to suffer because of his statements. She said state law grants him immunity because his speech fell within the scope of his legislative duties.

“It’s notable that someone who took an oath to uphold the law defended himself by saying he has a license to lie as a public official,” Banfield said. “He claimed he was immune to the same type of civil liability any other citizen has. No one should be above the law, including Mr. Sharp.”

Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›

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