Memories of Frank Daniels Jr


My long-time client, mentor and friend Frank Daniels Jr. died on June 30. He was 90 years old. For 20 of the 26 years he served as publisher of The News & Observer, I was privileged to defend the paper (and, until it closed in 1989, its afternoon counterpart The Raleigh Times) against libel suits, real and threatened; oppose subpoenas issued to its reporters and editors; and sue public officials for access to public records, public meetings and court proceedings. My relationship with “Frank Jr” gave rise to many memories and stories. Here are some of them.


I’ll never forget the day Frank hired me to represent The News & Observer. I was 33 years old, and I knew him only through his involvement in the North Carolina Press Association, which had named me as its general counsel a couple of years before.

Frank had called the previous day to invite me to join him and Executive Editor Claude Sitton for lunch in the N&O’s board room. Over sandwiches and iced tea he told me that the paper’s long-standing First Amendment lawyer, William Lassiter, was stepping down. “Bill doesn’t want to go to court any longer,” Frank said, “so we’d like you to represent us in connection with issues that arise out of stuff we publish, like libel suits and public records.”

As I launched into an obsequious and fawning response about how flattered I was to be offered the opportunity to represent the newspaper and how I would do my best to be worthy of such an honor, Frank interrupted. “Before you get too carried away,” he said, “you need to understand that I’m making you the same offer my daddy made Bill Lassiter many years ago. You can represent us, but if you lose a case we’ll get somebody else.”

As subsequent events proved, Frank wasn’t serious. In his inimitable way, he was simply reminding me not to take myself too seriously, a lesson that he assiduously applied to himself.


Frank was passionate about open government, and he didn’t hesitate to sue to enforce North Carolina’s Public Records and Open Meetings laws. In 1975 he sued the Wake County Board of Education, obtaining a permanent injunction requiring the board to comply with the Open Meetings Law. In 1981 the N&O won an important suit against the Wake County Hospital System, which argued that because it was organized as a not-for-profit corporation, it was exempt from the Public Records Law. The Court of Appeals ruled that the determination whether a particular entity was “an agency of North Carolina government” was a matter of substance, not form, and that the hospital’s multiple ties to Wake County were sufficient to bring it within the scope of the law. And in 1992 the newspaper prevailed in News and Observer Pub. Co. v. Poole, et al, which is often cited as North Carolina’s “seminal” public records law case. In its opinion, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled, among other things, that courts must construe the state’s “Sunshine laws” liberally and that any exemptions or exceptions to them must be viewed narrowly. Collectively, these three oft-cited cases constitute the bedrock of North Carolina law concerning our state’s Sunshine Laws and “the public’s right to know.”


Once I complained to Frank that I had been accosted by an angry subscriber who had given me “down the country” about an N&O story. “I kept telling him that I just represent the paper and have nothing to do with its content,” I said, “but he went off on me as if I were the publisher!”

“Oh, hell, Stevens,” Frank replied. “If you wanted to be popular you should have gone into a different line of work.”


Pro se libel plaintiffs – non-lawyers who represented themselves -- were a bane of Frank’s existence. In the 1980s, a former Raleigh resident sued The Raleigh Times in Arizona over a story mentioning that a North Carolina court had terminated her custody of her child. On my recommendation Frank hired a Phoenix attorney, who filed what should have been an open-and-shut motion to dismiss the suit on jurisdictional grounds. The motion languished while the plaintiff moved to amend her complaint, asked for extensions of time, and generally abused the court rules. Finally the judge ruled in the newspaper’s favor, and the lawyer sent me his bill, which I reviewed and presented to Frank for payment. “Damn, Stevens,” he said, “how the hell can such a simple case cost this much?” I explained that because the woman was representing herself, the judge had been patient with her shenanigans by letting her file unorthodox papers and make untenable arguments. “That’s the way it often is with pro se plaintiffs,” I told him. “In an effort to be fair, judges often bend over backwards to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them get away with things that no lawyer would be permitted to do. Your lawyer had no choice but to respond to her filings, no matter how frivolous or unwarranted.”

Frank looked at the bill again and frowned. “Wouldn’t it have been cheaper,” he asked, “for us just to have hired a competent lawyer to represent her?”

On many later occasions I wished we could have employed Frank’s sensible idea. The News & Observer spent years defending itself against libel suits filed by two obdurate  and relentless pro se plaintiffs: Celeste Broughton and Carol Bennett Dalenko, each of whom tried the patience of judge after judge in hearing after hearing, incurring sanctions that included a contempt conviction and jail term for Ms. Dalenko. All of their claims eventually were dismissed as meritless, and the N&O actually recovered substantial attorney fees against Ms. Dalenko, but the proceedings would have been far shorter  and far more civil if we could have employed the “Frank Daniels rule” and hired skilled lawyers to represent them.


  Northing more clearly reflects Frank’s views about government transparency than his dealings with Charlotte billionaire C.D. (“Dick”) Spangler, Jr. Their close friendship stemmed from having attended the Woodberry Forest School and UNC together. In 1984, when Bill Friday announced his retirement as president of the UNC System, Frank urged Spangler to make himself available for the position, to which the Board of Governors duly elected him.

In 1987, Spangler and the Board of Governors ordered the chancellors of each UNC constituent campus to submit detailed reports and recommendations concerning intercollegiate athletic issues, including the lengths of competitive seasons and recruitment practices. When Spangler received the reports, the N&O submitted a public records request for them. When Spangler declined, claiming that the reports would not be “final” until the Board of Governors accepted them, Frank joined forces with the North Carolina Press Association to sue his friend  and other UNC officials for access to the records. After a superior court judge ordered the records released, the defendants appealed, but the Board of Governors rendered the appeal moot by releasing the records while the appeal was pending. 

By a deft sleight of hand, President Spangler avoided being named as the defendant in the N&O’s 1992 suit seeking access to the records of the Poole Commission, which he had appointed to investigate the N.C. State basketball program. When commission chair Sam Poole presented him with the group’s report, Spangler read it, asked a few questions, and handed it back. When Frank asked him to release the report, Spangler replied that he didn’t have it, so Poole and the other commission members became the defendants in what turned out to be a landmark public records case. Nevertheless, Frank did not let his good friend get away completely with his clever maneuver. After the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the N&O, he asked the courts to award the newspaper its attorney fees. When he couldn’t persuade Frank to withdraw the request, Spangler, who was serving as UNC president without pay, wrote a personal check for the fees, which Frank promptly donated to the N.C. Press Foundation to support future public records suits.


By having his newspaper lead the fight for government accountability, Frank set a standard for North Carolina publishers, editors and television news directors that still prevails. His successors at the N&O haven’t hesitated to sue public officials, including some whom Frank, an ardent Democrat, supported. Over time many other news organizations – including national outlets such as the Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times -- have joined The News and Observer in suing for access to public records and proceedings, as have advocacy groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center and North Carolina Policy Watch. Neither their leaders nor their readers, viewers, and members probably realize that by committing their institutions to holding government officials accountable they not only are acting in the public interest; whether they intend to or not, they also are honoring the legacy of  Frank Daniels, Jr.