RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – On trial over federal defamation claims, bestselling romance novelist Nicholas Sparks denied he bullied the headmaster of a private Christian school Sparks founded in North Carolina to make the man quit.
Saul Hillel Benjamin, the former headmaster of Sparks’ faith-based Epiphany School of Global Studies, sued Sparks, the author’s foundation and the school’s board in 2014. The trial in the Eastern District of North Carolina kicked off Wednesday.
Benjamin claims “The Notebook” author bullied him into leaving the school after only a few months of employment in 2013.
In his complaint, the educator says he and Sparks constantly quarreled over Benjamin’s efforts to increase student diversity in the mostly white school and attempts to create a club for LGBTQ students.
Benjamin claims Sparks and the school board are largely intolerant of LGBTQ students and religious beliefs other than Christianity, stating in the complaint that the school discriminated against anyone who disagreed with the school’s “religiously driven, bigoted preconceptions.”
Sparks refuted Benjamin’s claims in testimony Thursday.
“We have had gay students from the beginning,” Sparks said. “We now have transgender students; we have gay faculty. We have incredibly strict antibullying policies.”
Benjamin also accuses Sparks of harming his reputation by telling a job recruiter, parents and others that he probably suffered from a mental illness. And three days before his resignation, Benjamin claims, Sparks and the school’s board started to solicit grievance letters from the school community to “manufacture cause” to fire him.
Sparks denied this as well, telling jurors Benjamin had created problems in the school by calling parents bigoted and focusing on the wrong curriculum issues.
“There were so many unnecessary fires that had been started,” Sparks testified. “I had multiple moments when he had been dishonest with me.”
U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III presides over the case.
In 2018, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank rejected Spark’s request to seal some court documents related to the case, but allowed for some redactions and a few previously sealed documents to remain undisclosed to the public.
The 10 jurors return to the box Friday for the next chapter of Sparks’ testimony.