Rarely used statute in Vermont helps student journalists escape a frivolous libel lawsuit

VERMONT — A federal magistrate has dismissed as frivolous a libel lawsuit filed by a North Carolina politician who claimed his 2012 presidential campaign was destroyed by a profile written by two student journalists from St. Michael’s College.

John D. Haywood, a lawyer from Durham, N.C., filed the lawsuit after the students’ profile was published on a class website days before the New Hampshire primary. In a judgment issued this month, Haywood — who garnered 432 votes in the primary to President Barack Obama’s 49,000 — was ordered to pay $23,336 in attorney’s fees, both for the students and the college facing the suit.

The dismissal order invoked a Vermont statute that aims to curb Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, more commonly known as “SLAPP” lawsuits. SLAPP suits are those that target ordinary citizens and burden them with legal costs as a means of silencing public debate.

The use of Vermont’s anti-SLAPP law, passed in 2005, is “extremely rare,” according to William Towle, the students’ attorney. The case is the second federal district court case in the state to be dismissed on anti-SLAPP grounds, he said.

In a brief supporting the dismissal, Towle described Haywood as a “poster child” for what the statute is intended to address and described his allegations as “quibbles and nitpicks” that cause “no recognizable injury.”

“In sum, the students are exactly the sort of people the statute is designed to protect – completely and constitutionally protected reporters of a public figure running for President,” Towle wrote in the brief.

According to court documents filed Jan. 4 and Jan. 7 by Towle and the school’s attorneys, respectively, Haywood has paid the attorney’s fees. Haywood also filed to appeal the dismissal and awarding of attorney’s fees.

Haywood on Friday called the students’ profile “absurd” and said it “without a doubt” damaged his candidacy. He plans to enter the race in 2016 if he wins his appeal.

The profile, written by Logan Spillane and Christopher Hardy, was published on a class website six days before the New Hampshire primary. David Mindich, the students’ professor, said theirs was one of more than 20 profiles on lesser-known presidential candidates — those who weren’t invited to the primary season debates.

In the lawsuit filed last July, Haywood said the students’ profile “nullified” his campaign by depicting him as a “inept monster” and exposing him as a Democrat to his Republican hometown friends.

Haywood sought the reimbursement of campaign advertising costs of more than $120,000, as well as damages of $1 million for the injury his reputation suffered and punitive damages of $50 million — money Haywood said represents 13 days worth of savings to the United States were a British healthcare system implemented under his presidency, according to the complaint. The punitive damages also would allow Haywood “to run in 2016 with a cleared name and and the ability to do the advertising that can perhaps overcome his low 2012 vote count,” his complaint stated.

Haywood spells out 16 claims of libel or falsehoods in the complaint.

Four of the claims refer to the students’ representation of Haywood’s health care stance, which calls for replacing America’s health system with one identical to Britain’s National Health Service. Because the students wrote Haywood wanted a system “similar” to Britain’s, Haywood wrote he was depicted as “bumbling around by not offering a specific solution to a major problem.”

Haywood’s complaint also addresses the damage he said he incurred when close friends learned he was a Democrat. Haywood made an agreement with his wife, whose brother is a Republican associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, to tell “as few people (as) possible” until or unless he became a “national figure by attaining a substantial vote count” in the first Democratic primary, the lawsuit explains.

But while researching the candidate, the students made phone calls to his Republican friends that Haywood claims “had no legitimate journalistic purpose” other than to pressure him out of the campaign.

Mindich called Haywood’s allegations “baseless” and said he’s been pleased with the outcome so far.

“Anytime you get sued you take it seriously,” Mindich said. “If student reporters and reporters in general can’t write profiles about presidential candidates, they can’t write profiles about anybody. If a lawsuit like this was allowed to go forward then it really would be a big blow against freedom of the press.”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Reach Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.