Rockingham Superior Court Judge Daniel St. Hilaire is siding with New Hampshire Public Radio, dismissing the defamation lawsuit brought by Eric Spofford over stories alleging he engaged in sexual misconduct while he was Granite Recovery Centers’ CEO.
Spofford filed the suit against NHPR in October, claiming the public radio station ruined his life and career when it reported a story in which women accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Spoffird claimed the reporters and editors involved in the story relied on biased sources and scant evidence.
St. Hilaire’s ruling, released this week, said Spofford failed to establish proof of actual malice by anyone at NHPR reporting on the sexual assault allegations, despite whatever bias and shoddy reporting Spofford claimed.
“Absent clearer indicia that the NHPR defendants acted in bad faith in relying on these sources, or were subjectively aware that the information provided by these sources was probably false, (the lawsuit) failed to allege actual malice,” St. Hilaire wrote.
In the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan lawsuit, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled public figures can only claim defamation when they can prove reporters acted with malice, “that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.” That would include reporting facts the reporters knew were untrue or acted with reckless disregard for truth.
St. Hilaire also ruled Spofford could be considered a limited-purpose public figure and therefore held to the Sullivan standard.
“By outwardly presenting himself as a national figure in the fight against opioid addiction and emphasizing the inspirational nature of his own story of recovery, Spofford voluntarily stepped into the midst of an ongoing controversy and assumed the risk of public discourse surrounding his conduct and his fitness as a leader in the field,” St. Hilaire wrote.
According to St. Hilaire’s ruling, Spofford has 30 days to file a new, amended complaint to allege actions that would qualify as actual malice. Absent that, the case will be dismissed.
Spofford claimed in his original complaint that NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian targeted him because of his Republican politics and that the station used the story to raise money from its left-leaning audience.
“Chooljian viewed Eric as her opportunity to ascend the journalism ranks. To Chooljian, a #MeToo-styled report about a white male, Republican donor, and bold and successful businessman, who made money in the substance use disorder treatment business, had all the markings of a career-defining piece,” the lawsuit states.
Spofford went on to allege in subsequent filings that Chooljian relied on biased sources, like his ex with whom he was engaged in a bitter custody dispute, and reported on nonexistent facts, like a Snapchat photo of his penis sent to one of the victims. Spofford claimed the photo does not exist and that Chooljian never saw the photo before reporting on it.
Chooljian and the station further ignored witnesses who contradicted the story and refused to run statements that Spofford believed cleared him, according to the filings.
Spofford maintains he never engaged in the sexual misconduct alleged in NHPR’s coverage. Spofford sold Granite Recovery Centers to BayMark Health Services, a Texas-based treatment company, last year. The sale price was not disclosed.