Jury Sides With Author Nicolas Sparks in Defamation Case

Novelist Nicholas Sparks attends a Feb. 1, 2016, screening in Los Angeles. A jury found for Sparks on Wednesday in a lawsuit accusing him of defaming the former headmaster of a private Christian school he founded in North Carolina. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – A federal jury on Wednesday absolved novelist Nicholas Sparks of all defamation claims brought by a former headmaster of the author’s private school.

In a federal trial in Raleigh last week, bestselling romance writer Sparks denied accusations he wrongfully fired and defamed the former headmaster of a private Christian school Sparks founded in his hometown in 2006.

Sparks formed the school in New Bern, North Carolina with his wife, but his educational foundation garnered public skepticism after Saul Benjamin, former headmaster of the Sparks-led, faith-based school, filed a 2014 lawsuit against the author.

Benjamin’s lawyers argued that the former school headmaster was forced out of the job after less than five months in 2013.

Benjamin claimed he was fired because Sparks and the school’s board of trustees “caved” after some parents at the school, about 120 miles east of Raleigh, were unhappy about the old headmaster’s new focus on increasing racial diversity and supporting LGBTQ students.

Benjamin was asked to resign a few months later and alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that the author defamed him after ”bullying” him out of the school.

The jury on Wednesday deliberated for about three hours before deciding the author did not defame the former headmaster or violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The trial in the Eastern District of North Carolina kicked off Wednesday, Aug. 14, following a five-year legal battle involving the author’s Epiphany School of Global Studies.

Benjamin, who is of Jewish descent and religiously identifies with Quaker traditions, claimed the school’s trustee board often discriminated against him, and fired him for his focus on enhancing student population diversity and supporting LGBTQ students.

Though the former headmaster begrudgingly signed resignation papers in 2013, he said, Sparks and the school’s board of trustees forced him out and essentially fired him without cause.

Wednesday’s jury dismissed this claim.

Benjamin also claimed that the K-12 school made it difficult for anyone who disagreed with its “religiously-driven, bigoted preconceptions” in his lawsuit.

According to Benjamin’s testimony, Sparks told parents, a job recruiter and others that he suffered from mental health problems. Benjamin argued that Sparks violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by spreading this rumor among the school community.

Sparks told a different story in court Aug. 14 and 15 — insisting that Benjamin caused an array of problems for the school to prompt his termination, such as calling community members “bigoted” or racist and consuming too much of Sparks’ time.

On Aug 15, the author testified that despite the educator’s claims, neither Benjamin’s perceived mental health or his efforts to support LGBTQ students was a reason the school considered when asking him to resign.

Several of Benjamin’s initial claims, including some discrimination allegations and contract interference claims were thrown out by U.S. District Judge James Dever III.

Last week, Sparks accused Benjamin of “weaponizing” words he had written in leaked emails, which were included in Benjamin’s filings about LGBTQ issues.

Contesting Benjamin’s claims that the romance writer’s school failed to protect LGBTQ students from bullies and forbade the club that the former headmaster hoped to facilitate, Sparks said he supports individuals who identify with those communities, and welcomes students and teachers from all backgrounds to join in Epiphany’s “Love thy Neighbor” mission.

“When in one of my emails I used language such as ‘There will never be an LGBT club’ at Epiphany, I was responding heatedly to how the headmaster had gone about creating this club,” Sparks wrote in a lengthy tweet on June 17.

The author reiterated this defense several times this week, noting the irony in his hastily typed emails appearing to lack clarity.

“Personally, I’m for gay marriage, gay adoption,” Sparks testified Wednesday, Aug. 14.

The trial that faded into Wednesday was centered on a few remaining claims, including the quashed defamation accusations.

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