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September 27, 2012

Former Presidential Candidate Sues St. Michael's Student Journalists for Libel

John D. HaywoodRemember John D. Haywood, the Democrat who challenged President Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary?

Neither do we.

Haywood didn't get much press in the run-up to the first-in-the-nation primary — nor did a dozen other also-rans whose names appeared on the ballot. But journalism students of Saint Michael's College took the time to interview and profile each and every B-lister on the New Hampshire primary ballot in the name of the democracy.

Now one of those candidates — Haywood — is suing St. Mike's, and the two student journalists who penned his profile, for libel. In a federal lawsuit filed at U.S. District Court in Burlington, Haywood claims that the article — published online six days before the Jan. 10 primary — contained numerous mis-characterizations about his record and portrayed him as a "bumbling, inept monster."

Haywood blames the article for costing him the race against Obama; Haywood received just 432 votes, the lawsuit notes, losing to the prez by a ratio of 115 to 1.

And here's the kicker. Haywood wants the court to award him a metric shit-ton in damages: $1 million to compensate him for "the permanent damage to his reputation" in his home community of Durham, N.C., $50 million in punitive damages, and $120,202 to reimburse what his campaign spent on newspaper advertising. (Because, you know, the college journalism piece totally sunk his White House dreams).

Haywood's justification for that eye-popping sum? "It is ... an amount that will, after taxes, enable Plaintiff to run in 2016 with a cleared name and and [sic] the ability to do the advertising that can perhaps overcome his low 2012 vote count."

Students in professor David Mindich's Media and American Politics class have been profiling lesser-known presidential candidates in every election since 2004. The goal is to "give a voice to all candidates," including those "who have received limited media coverage." This year, students profiled nine Democrats and 18 Republicans competing with their better-known rivals in the presidential primaries, including such characters as "Vermin Supreme" and "Craig Tax Freeze Freis" (who apparently legally changed his name to add the "Tax Freeze" part.) All are published on this website.

In his 16 years at St. Mike's, Mindich, who chairs the Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts Department, says no one has ever sued student journalists for libel. He calls the lawsuit "completely without merit" but said he could not comment further on it.

St. Mike's lawyers are calling it something else: a SLAPP suit, which stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation" — frivolous lawsuits whose primary intent is to chill constitutionally-protected speech. This week, St. Mike's filed a special motion to strike, asking U.S. Magristrate Judge John Conroy to toss the case as a SLAPP suit.

"His complaint is a rambling, sixteen-count summary of Plaintiff's frustration with the way the authors' [sic] characterized his political positions," lawyer Jeffrey Nolan wrote in St. Mike's motion. "This is not a defamation suit, it is an attempt to prevent anyone from describing his policy stances during a race for the Presidency in any manner other than one approved by Mr. Haywood."

Haywood's complaint is indeed rambling and it nit-picks the student journalists' summaries of his positions — drawn from an interview with Haywood and his campaign website — on health care, economic policy, foreign policy, global warning and education. How off base were the students' descriptions? To cite but one characteristic example from Haywood's lawsuit: "Defendants falsely wrote under Health Care in the second line thereof that Plaintiff proposed 'switching to a single-payer system that is similar to the one in Britain.' In truth and in fact Plaintiff advocated a system exactly like the one in Britain."

As Steve Martin would say, "Well excuuuuuuuse me!"

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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