Haywood v. St. Michael’s College

NOTE: The information and commentary contained in this database entry are based on court filings and other informational sources that may contain unproven allegations made by the parties. The truthfulness and accuracy of such information is likely to be in dispute. Information contained in this entry is current as of the last event mentioned in the "Description" section below; additional proceedings might have taken place in this matter since this event.

Summary

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Date: 

07/24/2012

Status: 

Pending

Location: 

Vermont

Disposition: 

Dismissed (total)

Verdict or Settlement Amount: 

$0.00
In January 2012, a professor at St. Michael's College posted a profile of John D. Haywood, a candidate for President of the United States in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, to a college-owned website. His students, Logan R. Spillane and Christopher... read full description
Parties

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

St. Michael's College, Christopher Hardy, Logan Spillane

Type of Party: 

Individual

Type of Party: 

Individual
School

Location of Party: 

  • North Carolina

Location of Party: 

  • Vermont

Legal Counsel: 

Jeffrey J. Nolan and W. Scott Fewell (Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew) (for Saint Michael’s College), William B. Towle (Ward & Babb) (for defendants Spillane and Hardy)
Description

In January 2012, a professor at St. Michael's College posted a profile of John D. Haywood, a candidate for President of the United States in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, to a college-owned website. His students, Logan R. Spillane and Christopher Hardy, had written the profile of Haywood to fulfill a requirement for a journalism class. In preparing to write the article, the students had spoken to Haywood on the phone, interviewed several of his associates in his home state of North Carolina, and read his campaign website.

On July 24, 2012, Haywood filed a pro se lawsuit for libel against St. Michael's College, Spillane, and Hardy, alleging that the profile of his candidacy contained false statements about his policy positions, and that this profile injured his reputation and reduced his chances of winning the election. He identified sixteen allegedly false statements, including that Haywood had offered "a solution to global warming which is to spray particles into the atmosphere as a way to reflect the sun's heat back into space, which, in his opinion, would cool the earth." Haywood denied that he ever claimed to have the solution to global warming. Instead, he identified particle insertion as "one of the most promising areas for research" into how to cool the planet.

Haywood also claimed that the students' efforts to contact his associates in North Carolina for comment were evidence of malice, because Haywood was trying to keep his candidacy a secret from his associates. The students' actions harmed him, he asserted, because they informed his friends and family, many of whom are Republicans, that he was running for president in a Democratic primary.

Haywood sought $120,202.15 to fully reimburse his advertising costs, an additional $1,000,000 in damages for the reputational injury he suffered in his community, and $50,000,000 in punitive damages.

The students and the college filed special motions to strike under Vermont's state anti-SLAPP statute, 12 V.S.A. § 1041. Both the students and the college argued that the lawsuit fell within the statute's scope, as "a suit arising from the defendant's exercise, in connection with a public issue, of the right to freedom of speech." 12 V.S.A. § 1041(a). The students' brief argued that that the fact that Haywood was running as a Democrat in New Hampshire is both undisputed and public, and therefore should not form the basis of a libel claim, and that the other claims of falsity were "quibbles and nitpicks." Both briefs argued that the suit was an improper attempt by the plaintiff to prevent the description of his policy stances in a manner he did not approve and asked the court to dismiss the libel claims and award costs and reasonable attorney's fees for all work associated with litigating the claims.

Haywood filed a response opposing the special motions to strike, arguing that it was the defendants who had had violated his First Amendment rights. Specifically, he claimed that the defendants infringed his right to expression by publishing a profile which may have led to "untold multitudes" not to read his webpage. Haywood further stated that the defendants had "no right to appeal an interlocutory order dismissing the motion under 12 V.S.A. section 1041 (g) as the federal courts of appeal are governed by the Interlocutory Appeals Act."

The college replied to Haywood's response, noting that the motion to strike "is not an appeal and § 1041(g) is not relevant at this time." However, the college argued that, "to the extent Plaintiff is arguing that 12 V.S.A. § 1041 is a state statute that incorporates aspects of state procedure, the District Court for the District of Vermont has already ruled that this is no bar to bringing an anti-SLAPP motion to strike in federal court," citing to Bible & Gospel Trust. 1:07-CV-17, 2008 WL 5245644 (D. Vt. Dec. 12, 2008).

On Sept. 26, 2012, St. Michael's college filed a motion to dismiss. The motion argued for the application of North Carolina defamation law, because the alleged defamation constituted an "aggregate communication," as it was published online, and Haywood was domiciled in North Carolina at the time of publication. The college further argued that, as a matter of law, the profile was not libel per se under North Carolina law, because all of the disputed statements, when considered on their face, and without reference to the context surrounding the publication, were simple descriptions of policy positions which did not subject Haywood to ridicule or disgrace.

The college also argued that, even if Vermont or New Hampshire law applied, the defendants' statements would not be defamatory, because they would not tend to lower the plaintiff in the esteem of a respectable group of people.

Finally, the college argued that Haywood is a public figure and therefore must show that the defendants acted with actual malice, knowing the statement was false or acting with reckless disregard for the truth. Haywood could not show actual malice, it argued, because the complaint contained nothing more than "naked assertions " that did not constitute even a "bare factual showing that the Defendant purposefully acted without concern for the truth."

The students also filed a motion to dismiss, which the college joined. The students' motion noted that the only evidence of actual malice cited in Haywood's brief was an allegation that the students interviewed his associates in North Carolina "for one purpose only: pressuring the Plaintiff from continuing his campaign." The students argued that these interviews were not evidence of malice, but were part of standard journalistic practice. The students also argued that the complaint did not allege injury for which damages could be awarded, arguing that "[i]t is not a reasonable inference nor reasonably foreseeable nor a proximate cause that a St. Mike's freshman journalism class assignment actually derailed a fringe candidate's campaign to unseat an incumbent President."

Following Haywood's filing of an amended complaint, which further addressed the embarrassment allegedly caused by the statements at issue, both the students and the college renewed their motions to dismiss and their motions to strike.

Haywood responded to the renewed motions, reiterating his prior arguments and alleging that the special motions to strike were frivolous and intended to delay and that costs should be awarded if he was required to travel to a hearing on the Motion to Strike.

On December 14, 2012, after supplemental briefing on the anti-SLAPP provision, the court issued an opinion and order granting the defendants' renewed motions to dismiss the amended complaint for failure to state a claim and defendants' special motions to strike under Vermont's anti-SLAPP statute. The Court awarded the defendants costs and reasonable attorney's fees.

In evaluating the 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, the court ruled that Vermont law indicated that the law of the state where the plaintiff was domiciled controlled. However, it noted that special damages can occur in more than one jurisdiction. It therefore ruled that Haywood could seek damages for the loss of the election under New Hampshire law, and for his reputational injury under North Carolina law. However, the court determined that Haywood's claim must be dismissed under either North Carolina or New Hampshire law.

The court held that Haywood failed to state a libel claim because: (1) his claim did not satisfy the elements of libel under North Carolina law; (2) his claim did not establish the state of mind or injury elements of a libel claim under New Hampshire law; and (3) his claim did not establish that the profile was written or published with actual malice.

The court held that the profile was not libel under North Carolina law because it did not impugn the plaintiff's character, finding that the policy positions described in the profile were, in many cases, "simply a hair's breadth away from Plaintiff's true position," and not "so outlandish" that they would expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule. The court also found that Haywood had not identified any contextual elements that would alter a reader's understanding of the profile and provided "no factual underpinnings to his conclusory allegation that the student Defendants intended to defame Plaintiff." Rather, the court found that the "students had a contrary motive, as they submitted the Profile in fulfillment of an assignment in journalism, a profession that relies on factually accurate reporting. They had nothing to gain, and a grade to lose, by writing falsehoods." Finally, the court concluded that "[d]amages are particularly "speculative and uncertain" in this case, given that Plaintiff lost the election by a significant vote ratio (more than 116 to 1)." Aycock v. Padgett, 516 S.E.2d 907, 910 (N.C. Ct. App. 1999) ("[t]he notion that the loss of an election constitutes special damages for which a court may grant relief is far too speculative and uncertain to entertain.").

The court also held that the profile was not libel under New Hampshire law, because New Hampshire law requires the plaintiff to demonstrate an injury to his reputation, and the only reputational injury Haywood alleged was that his friends and family discovered that he was running as a Democrat.

The court also found that Haywood failed to satisfy his burden to prove the students' state of mind. A New Hampshire plaintiff can only recover compensatory damages if he shows the defendants were negligent, and Haywood did not allege negligence. The court likewise found that Haywood could not meet the heightened standard for defamation that applies to public figures under the First Amendment. The court noted that, as a person running for the highest public office in the country, Haywood was a public figure for purposes of defamation law and needed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that a defamatory falsehood was made with actual malice. His allegations that the students contacted his associates to pressure him into ceasing his campaign did not rise above a speculative level, as there was "no immediately apparent reason why the student Defendants would have such a motivation." The court concluded that Haywood was conflating the actual malice standard with malice in the colloquial sense and overlooking the fact that the reckless disregard standard is subjective and requires an assessment of the defendant's actual state of mind.

The court then turned to the motions to strike under Vermont's anti-SLAPP law. The court noted that some federal courts have decided that state anti-SLAPP provisions conflict with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and have therefore declined to apply them in federal court. However, the District Court followed the District of Vermont's earlier holding in Bible & Gospel Trust that there is no direct conflict between the Vermont anti-SLAPP statute and the Federal Rules, and that "the state interest outweighs any federal interest."

In evaluating the merits of the anti-SLAPP motions, the court looked primarily to California precedent interpreting an analogous anti-SLAPP provision, because the Vermont Supreme Court had not interpreted the Vermont anti-SLAPP statute.

The court concluded that the defendants met their threshold burden of proving that their conduct is protected by the anti-SLAPP statute because (1) the profile was published in a public forum, and (2) the publication was in furtherance of the students' right to free speech and involved speech concerning a public issue. Citing CA law, the court found that "[a]n Internet website that is accessible to the general public ...is a public forum." Cole v. Patricia A. Meyer & Associates, APC, 206 Cal. App. 4th 1095, 1121 (Cal. App. 2d 2012).

The court also found that "it is clear that the writing of the profile was an exercise of the students' freedom of speech." It noted that California courts have identified three categories of speech concerning a public issue: (1) the subject of the statement precipitating the claim was a person or entity in the public eye; (2) the statement precipitating the claim involved conduct that could affect large numbers of people beyond the direct participants; and (3) whether the statement or activity precipitating the claim involved a topic of widespread public interest." Wilbanks, 121 Cal. App. 4th at 898.22. The students' speech concerned a public issue under all three definitions: (1) as a candidate for President, Haywood was in the public eye; (2) Haywood's candidacy had the potential to affect large numbers of people; and (3) the election (and each issue addressed in the profile) was a topic of widespread public interest.

Finding the Plaintiff's burden satisfied, the court then considered whether the plaintiff could prove that: (1) the defendant's exercise of his or her right to freedom of speech was devoid of any reasonable factual support and any arguable basis in law; and (2) the defendant's acts caused actual injury to the plaintiff. The court found that Haywood failed to make that showing.

The statements in the profile had reasonable factual support, according to the court, because they were quite similar to the statements on Haywood's campaign website. The court further found that defendants' speech had a "decidedly firm basis in law" because, as it ruled in granting the defendants' motions to dismiss, Haywood's claim was not legally sufficient. Finally, court found that the actual injury Haywood alleged was "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."

Finally, the court held that the defendants were entitled to the entirety of their attorney's fees and costs, not just those relating to the litigation of the anti-SLAPP motions. The court's analysis of Vermont law governing other fee shifting provisions led him to conclude that the Vermont courts would interpret the fee-shifting clause broadly. The court held that the legal work on the various motions was "inextricably linked," and "severance of the work ... is untenable." Finally, the court held that this interpretation of the fee shifting provision advanced "the policy of the anti-SLAPP statute, as it guarantees that costly litigation will not chill protected expression."

Haywood filed a notice of appeal pro se on Jan. 2, 2013.

Details

Content Type: 

  • Text

Publication Medium: 

Website

Subject Area: 

  • Defamation
  • SLAPP
Court Information & Documents