College Journalists Cleared, Politician Ordered to Pay, Happy Ending Declared

By: Michael Seinberg

College tuition is pretty outrageous today, but imagine getting hit with an additional charge of $50 million over a class assignment. Confused? Don’t worry, it all worked out thanks to a not-so-sharp politician and a reasonable judge.

In the fall of 2012, Logan Spillane and Christopher Hardy, journalism students at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, turned in a story they had written for a class assignment. The story, a political profile of John D. Haywood of North Carolina, who was running in the New Hampshire presidential primary, was later posted on the college website by their professor in January of 2012.

After the story was posted, Haywood got wind of it and claimed it was libelous, injured his reputation, and cost him the primary win. He went after the students and the college seeking $50 million in punitive damages, $1 million for injury to his reputation in North Carolina, and reimbursement for more than $120,000 in ads.

Now let’s review here. The guy is a North Carolina Republican running in a Democratic primary and his GOP buds back in NC never knew he switched till our intrepid journalist kiddies called them for background comments. Haywood also claims the kids misrepresented his policy positions. He probably also thinks they stuck out their tongues at him and yelled, “Nah nah!”

In returning to a state of reality, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy, in Burlington, VT dismissed the whole mess for failure to state a claim. He applied NC law and found the profile not libelous per se or per quod. He dismissed the claims under NH law too and he successfully applied VT’s Anti-SLAPP law against the complaint. So Haywood blew his case in three states, lost the primary in spectacular fashion and now owes the college $16,000 in attorney fees and costs and the kids will get $6,600 for the same.

The judge was quite clear in his feelings about this case.  “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).

The 39-page ruling continues to explain how asinine Haywood’s lawsuit was and generally puts him in his place in a way that should happen far more often. Public figures such as politicians should think before they sue journalists, even junior ones. They should also think about the fact that their policies usually seem to be written in erasable ink along with party affiliations so as to allow for quick changes as the wind changes direction and fresh poll numbers come in.

Perhaps this ruling will serve as an example for future lawsuit entrepreneurs. Kudos to the judge and to the student journalists who certainly started out their careers in spectacular fashion. They learned the cardinal rule of journalism: If you’re not making someone mad, you’re not doing the job.

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