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Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Primary Loser Can’t Pin Defeat on College Profile

(CN) - A North Carolina man must pay legal fees for the college and the journalism students he accused of costing him the 2012 presidential primary.

The order, entered by the clerk of the U.S. District Court of the District of Vermont, closes the book on the pro se defamation case that John D. Haywood filed against St. Michael's College and two journalism students at the Vermont school, Logan Spillane and Christopher Hardy.

Spillane and Hardy had written a profile on Haywood for their journalism class, and their professor posted the profile on the college's website in January 2012.

Haywood had claimed that the profile misrepresented his policy positions, costing him the Democratic primary in New Hampshire as well as his reputation in his home state of North Carolina.

Republican friends of Haywood in North Carolina also allegedly did not know about Haywood's bid for the Democratic ticket until the students told them while preparing the profile.

Haywood sought $50 million in punitive damages, plus $1 million for his injured reputation back home, and reimbursement of more than $120,000 in advertisements.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy in Burlington, Vt., dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim.

Applying North Carolina law, Conroy found that "the profile is not libelous per se."

"Clearly, the profile did not charge plaintiff with the commission of a crime, did not allege that he had an infectious disease, and did not impeach plaintiff's profession," Conroy wrote. "The only remaining basis for liability is that plaintiff was subjected to 'ridicule, contempt or disgrace' because of the profile. Even accepting Plaintiff's allegations of falsehood, however, the alleged libelous statements consist merely of incorrect descriptions of plaintiff's policy positions. ... Nothing in the profile impugns plaintiff at a personal level. Instead, the positions described in the profile, even if different from those actually held by plaintiff, are not so outlandish that they 'expose [plaintiff] to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule' and rise to the level of libel per se. The profile's overall tone is neither pejorative nor acrimonious. Indeed, in many cases the policy position described is simply a hair's breadth away from plaintiff's true position such that falsehood could not possibly be proven. Furthermore, many of the challenged statements do not relate to any of Plaintiff's own policy positions at all. In short, the profile does not reflect negatively on plaintiff such that it impugns his character or ability to discharge the duties of president of the United States and is thus not libel per se."

Conroy also dismissed Haywood's claims of libel per quod, which require reference to acts or circumstances outside of the alleged libelous statement.

One category of this type of libel requires a plaintiff to prove that the defendant intended a defamatory meaning and that the recipients or readers understood the statement in a defamatory way.

Since Spillane and Hardy submitted the assignment to demonstrate their ability to make factual reports, Conroy concluded that "they had nothing to gain, and a grade to lose, by writing falsehoods."

The judge also dismissed Haywood's libel claims under New Hampshire law.

"As stated, the only reputational injury alleged is that plaintiff's Republican friends and family discovered that he was running as a Democrat when the student defendants spoke with them to gather background information for their profile," the 39-page ruling states. "This injury cannot be actionable libel because it derives only from an admittedly true statement in the profile and is unrelated to any of the allegedly false descriptions of his policy positions. Libelous statements must be false; if a true statement causes injury, it is not libel."

Spillane and Hardy also successfully applied Vermont's Anti-SLAPP law against the complaint.

"The court thus concludes that the profile was published in a public forum, and the publication was in furtherance of the student defendants' right to free speech and involved speech concerning a public issue," Conroy wrote. "Therefore, defendants have met their threshold burden of proving that their conduct is protected by the anti-SLAPP statute.

Comparing the profile against statements on Haywood's own website, the court found that the students had "reasonable factual support."

"Moreover, the 'actual injury' allegedly suffered by Plaintiff is highly speculative, considering that he lost the primary by an overwhelming margin; the profile was published only on the St. Michael's College website; and plaintiff's alleged reputational injury derived primarily from a true statement contained in the profile (his party affiliation)," Conroy wrote (parentheses in original).

This December resolution positioned the defendants to collect reasonable attorneys' fees and costs, which the clerk granted on Jan. 11, 2013.

Represented by Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, the college will collect more than $16,000 in such costs. The students, represented by South Burlington attorney William Towle, will collect about $6,600.

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