LEXINGTON, Ky. (CN) – As March Madness sweeps the nation, a federal judge Wednesday rejected the claims of a college basketball referee who blamed a Kentucky sports radio station for a barrage of fan harassment, finding that the station’s speech was protected.
In October 2017, referee John Higgins sued Kentucky Sports Radio LLC, its founder Matt Jones and managing editor Drew Franklin. He claimed the hosts’ withering criticism of one his calls after Kentucky narrowly lost an Elite Eight men’s game against North Carolina that year incited thousands of angry fans to contact his family and business in Sarpy County, Nebraska.
Claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, tortious interference with a business relationship, and other counts, Higgins said that while he expected a “critique or two” or some “lively language,” Jones and Franklin had gone too far.
In the days after the loss, the hosts had read emails from fans who openly mused that they were considering contacting Higgins’ roofing business to air their discontent. The hosts mentioned his company, “Rooferees,” by name.
“Death threats and defamatory messages in the thousands that lead to a serious disruption in a referee’s business are not to be expected,” Higgins said in his lawsuit.
Higgins claimed that Jones had acted with “actual malice,” the high standard that plaintiffs must meet when bringing an invasion of privacy claim against a journalist, by publishing statements that he knew were false – although, Higgins did not plead a defamation claim. That, and the ensuing news stories, he said, prompted angry fans to contact Higgins and harass him and his family and post hundreds of one-star reviews.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Hood disagreed in his Wednesday order. While the judge did not condone the hosts’ actions, he noted that matters of public concern are not limited to the political or governmental sphere, and could include major sporting events.
“Of course, some individuals listening to defendants’ programming may have felt emboldened or encouraged to publicly express their anger toward Higgins,” Judge Hood wrote in his order granting the defendants’ motion to dismiss. “But to hold the defendants responsible for these third-party actions would potentially quell open debate and commentary on public events and issues.”
Jones wrote on Twitter that he was pleased with the court’s ruling, and its finding that neither he nor the station could be held responsible for the actions of third parties.
“I hope the many media members and outlets that thoroughly, and on multiple occasions, covered the allegations in this lawsuit will equally cover the dismissal of the claims,” Jones added.
Neither Higgins nor his attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday.
Higgins did not sue the hosts for defamation, and Hood said the referee could yet make that claim. Hood added that while the hosts could not be held responsible for the conduct of fans who had contacted the referee, that did not mean Higgins could not take legal action against those responsible.
“Of course, creative minds may ponder a perpetual parade of horribles and infinite slippery slope arguments as a result of this holding. This court is sensitive to the real problem imposed by cyberbullying, especially in the age of social media,” Hood wrote, cautioning that each case was unique and the court was not ruling that “all speech on matters of public concern is protected from tort liability.”