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November 29, 2012

Lawyers Spar Over Presidential Candidate's $50 Million Libel Suit Against St. Mike's Student Journalists

HaywoodJohn D. Haywood caught a flight from North Carolina to Burlington on Wednesday to tell a judge why St. Michael's College should pay him $50 million in a libel lawsuit aimed at student journalists.

Haywood (pictured) ran for president of the United States as a Democrat in the New Hampshire primary this year and blames a profile of him written by St. Mike's students for sinking his White House dreams. (Click here for background on the case.)

Students in Professor David Mindich's "Media and American Politics" class have been profiling lesser-known presidential candidates in every election since 2004, with the goal of giving voice to all candidates. Haywood complained that students grossly misrepresented his positions in the article, published on a college website 10 days before last January's primary, and says the errors cost him the race against President Obama. Haywood received just 432 votes, meaning he lost to Obama by a ratio of 115 to 1.

"Anyone who read their profile wouldn't touch my website with a 10-foot pole," Haywood told U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy on Wednesday. "Things they said about my positions are so extreme, so ridiculous."

Haywood, the student journalists and lawyers for the college appeared in U.S. District Court in Burlington on Wednesday for a hearing on several pending motions. St. Michael's has filed a motion to dismiss the case under Vermont's anti-SLAPP statute, a law meant to protect against lawsuits whose primary purpose is to chill constitutionally protected speech. SLAPP stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation."

Haywood, who is fighting the lawsuit without a lawyer's assistance, sat alone at the plaintiff's table with an old-fashioned suitcase place on top. The defendant's table had three lawyers for St. Michael's, college vice president Michael New and the two student journalists. Their parents and other supporters filled the courtroom for the hourlong hearing.

Haywood is seeking $50 million because, he says, that's the amount he would need to mount a credible campaign for president in 2016. A former Navy JAG Corps lawyer from Durham, N.C., Haywood hasn't practiced law since 1984 and is no longer a member of the bar.

Conroy told Haywood that proving libel required "clear and convincing evidence" that the students acted maliciously in their reporting — not simply that they got facts wrong. "Can you point to evidence?" the judge asked.

Citing one such error, Haywood told the judge in a deep Southern drawl, "If I say I want to raise the income tax, and they say you want to raise the estate tax, then yes."

"What that shows is that the students were in error," Conroy replied from the bench.

Conroy seemed to find only one statement in the students' story potentially libelous: a claim that Haywood had accused Republican members of Congress of taking bribes, which did not appear anywhere on Haywood's campaign website. Representing the students, attorney William Towle said that particular information came from an interview one of the students conducted. In any case, Towle argued the claim wasn't libelous to Haywood — if anything, he said, it "might be libelous to Republicans in Congress."

Haywood has alleged that the students had a motive to write the inaccurate story: to get him out of the campaign. Scott Fewell, the attorney for St. Michael's, told the judge the opposite was true: The students were giving Haywood a platform. "Most candidates would kill for free press," the lawyer said.

For his part, Towle said Haywood's complaints about the story amounted to "nothing more than quibbles and nitpicks" about how his policies were portrayed. For instance, the students said he favored a health care system similar to the one in Great Britain, when in fact Haywood supports a system identical to British health care.

"The students were simply trying to do a homework assignment and they were dragged into federal court," Towle told the judge. "That pretty much makes them the poster children for anti-SLAPP."

Conroy adjourned Wednesday's hearing without ruling. Outside the courtroom, Haywood acknowledged he was likely to lose the case at this stage. Asked whether he really thought he posed a threat to Obama, Haywood said, "No idea." Asked whether his claim for $50 million in damages was excessive, Haywood replied, "By the time the tax man gets done with it, it's nothing in terms of presidential politics. Unless I have a headline-making jury verdict, I'm over."

Photo credit: Andy Bromage

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