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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Journalist May Face Off With Help Center’s PR

WASHINGTON (CN) - Publicists for a teen-behavior-modification group may have crossed the line by bashing an investigative reporter as recklessly biased, a federal judge ruled.

Thomas Houlahan had tried to speak with someone from World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, an association of behavior-modification facilities for teenagers, in 2003 while investigating the industry, according to the decision.

His communications allegedly became heated with James Wall and his public relations firm Freeman Wall Aiello.

In one email to Houlahan, which Wall then forwarded to Houlahan's editor at UPI, Wall allegedly wrote: "The fact that you are now purveying your perverse views (torture, abuse, battery, etc.) in personal telephone conversations to parents of children who have contractual relationship with Ivy Ridge/[Tranquility Bay] could well be an issue for their attorneys to take up."

Ivy Ridge and Tranquility Bay are schools affiliated with the World Wide, or WWASPS, schools.

Another email that Wall also allegedly forwarded to the editor accused Houlahan of unethical conduct. "It is clear that your role as a journalist is being eclipsed by your very negative views of WWASPS schools," Wall allegedly wrote.

Houlahan's research for his United Press International story explored widespread allegations that the teen-behavior-modification industry was plagued with physical and psychological abuse.

World Wide sued Houlahan in 2004, and Freeman Wall issued a press release on its behalf.

Houlahan eventually had the claims against him tossed for lack of jurisdiction and he settled claims of his own against World Wide and others over the years.

Senior U.S. District Judge Frederick Scullin noted last week, however, an agreement by the parties that Wall deserved summary judgment on the intentional interference with prospective economic advantage claim, based on earlier decisions in the case.

Since Houlahan also never asserted the claim for abuse of process against Wall, only his claim for defamation against Wall and Wall's company remains, according to the ruling.

Houlahan says Wall refused to share his research findings with Ken Kay, then president of WWASPS, and instead told Kay that "plaintiff was insane and out to get WWASPS."

"Also, plaintiff notes that, when Mr. Kay posited that plaintiff might not be such a bad person and just might need to be educated, defendant Wall responded with an email asking Mr. Kay if he had read 'the latest wacko correspondence from [plaintiff],'" the ruling states. "Defendant Wall was referring to the emails outlining plaintiff's concerns about the child who had been abducted in South Carolina, concerns that proved well-founded."

Senior U.S. District Judge Frederick Scullin found last week that each statement Houlahan highlighted as defamatory is actionable.

Houlahan has also raised enough facts about the falsity of the statements and that the statements could have been made with malice, according to the ruling.

Courthouse News has reported on several lawsuits against WWASPS over the years.

In 2011, hundreds of parents claimed that a group of boarding schools tortured their children by locking them in dog cages, forcing them to lie in feces and eat vomit, masturbating them, and denying the troubled teens any religion "except for the Mormon faith."

A Mexican teen lobbed abuse allegations against WWASPS in 2012, and a female former student alleged last year that the program turned her into a "mindless slave."

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