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Judge finds 'no evidence' of malice in NHPR journalist's notes on sexual misconduct story

Photo of the exterior of the Rockingham County Courthouse
Todd Bookman/NHPR News

This story was originally produced by WBUR. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the New England News Collaborative.

A man suing New Hampshire Public Radio over its coverage of a slew of allegations of abuse and misconduct against him has 30 days to produce evidence before his suit is dismissed, a superior court judge ruled Wednesday.

Eric Spofford, founder of the substance use treatment facilities Granite Recovery Centers, sued the public radio media outlet, claiming it defamed him with its coverage of his leadership of the substance use treatment facilities. The NHPR stories detailed multiple accusations against Spofford of sexual misconduct, abusive behavior and retaliation. The reporter, Lauren Chooljian, did not name her sources, including a woman who attended a recovery program and two female former employees.

"Although Spofford is still free to amend his Complaint ... absent new evidence that constitutes a total departure from the in camera review materials, any amendment will likely be futile," Judge Daniel St. Hilaire wrote in his ruling.

St. Hilaire had previously dismissed Spofford's suit in April, but Spofford was allowed to amend his complaint, asking to review Chooljian’s notes and inter-newsroom communication on the story. The judge ordered NHPR to provide the material, which the station could anonymize to protect its sourcing, for the court to review.

NHPR fought the ruling based on its First Amendment rights, but ultimately was forced to turn over more than 2,800 pages of material. Spofford was not allowed to see the material sent to the court for review.

"In conducting the in camera review, the Court devoted substantial resources and numerous hours to exhaustively reviewing the nearly 3,000 pages of discovery documents," St. Hilaire wrote. "Having now completed this review, the Court concludes that the documents produced contain no evidence that any of the NHPR Defendants acted with actual malice."

A vandal threw a brick through a window and spray painted "JUST THE BEGINNING" on the side of Chooljian's home in Massachusetts. Her parents' home and NHPR editor Dan Barrick's home in New Hampshire were vandalized soon after the Spofford story was released.

Four men have been charged in federal court in connection with the property damage. Spofford has denied any involvement with the attacks.