By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: New Hampshire Public Radio

Four indicted on federal harassment charges targeting NHPR journalists

A federal grand jury has indicted four men from New Hampshire in connection with what authorities allege was “a conspiracy to harass and intimidate two journalists employed by New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR).” The case involves vandalism against the homes of NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian, her parents, and her editor, Dan Barrick. The story has attracted national attention, including a rather harrowing account last June in The New York Times (free link).

There’s an interesting angle to the latest news. In June, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced that three men had been charged: Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem, Eric Labarge, 46, of Nashua; and Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook. Now a fourth suspect has been added to the list: Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua. Each could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

All of this is related to reporting by NHPR that Eric Spofford, the politically connected founder New Hampshire’s largest network of addiction treatment centers, had engaged in sexual harassment. The suspects are allegedly associates of Spofford, who has not been charged. In fact, Spofford is claiming libel in a lawsuit against Chooljian and NHPR. The state judge in the case, Daniel St. Hilaire, raised First Amendment concerns by ordering NHPR to turn over documents so that he could determine whether they supported Spofford’s libel claim. The libel suit, however, is now on hold, according to Nancy West of the investigative website InDepthNH, because St. Hilaire has gone on leave for an unspecified reason.

The vandalism that was allegedly committed by the four suspects was frightening and vile; if you want to read the gory details, it’s all in the press release.

Update: West of InDepthNH tells me that Judge St. Hilaire has been back from leave for a while and that she’ll soon be writing about the latest developments in Spofford’s libel case.

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Three face federal charges in vandalism and harassment targeting NHPR journalists

Federal authorities have charged three men in the vandalism and harassment case involving two journalists at New Hampshire Public Radio. In the press release below, issued Friday by the U.S. attorney’s office for Massachusetts, “Victim 1” is NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian; “Victim 2” is her editor, Dan Barrick; and “Subject 1” is Eric Spofford, the founder New Hampshire’s largest network of addiction treatment centers.

Spofford has denied any involvement in or knowledge of the vandalism. He has filed a libel suit against Chooljian and NHPR, which drew the attention of The New York Times (free link) after a judge ordered that NHPR let him examine the transcripts of interviews so that he can determine if they are relevant to Spofford’s claim. The full press release is as follows:

BOSTON — Three New Hampshire men have been charged in connection with a conspiracy to harass and intimidate two New Hampshire journalists employed by New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR). The alleged harassment and intimidation of the victims included the vandalism — on five separate occasions — of the victims’ homes, as well as the vandalism of the home of one of the victim’s immediate family members with bricks, large rocks and red spray paint.

Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem, N.H., Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook, N.H. and Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua, N.H. were each charged by criminal complaint with conspiring to commit stalking through interstate travel. Cockerline and Waselchuck were arrested this morning and, following an initial appearance in federal court in Boston this afternoon, were detained pending a hearing scheduled for June 20, 2023 at 2 p.m. Saniatan remains at large.

“The critical role that the press plays in our society goes back to the founding of our nation. Today’s charges should send a clear message that the Department of Justice will not tolerate harassment or intimidation of journalists. If you engage in this type of vicious and vindictive behavior you will be held accountable,” said Acting United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy.

“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy and these three men are now accused of infringing on that freedom by conspiring to harass and intimidate two New Hampshire journalists who were simply doing their jobs,” said Christopher DiMenna, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Field Division. “Everyone has a right to express their opinion, but taking it over the line and committing vandalism will not be tolerated.”

According to the charging document, after a year-long investigation, an NHPR journalist (Victim 1) published an article in March 2022 detailing allegations of sexual and other misconduct by a former New Hampshire businessperson, identified in the charging document as Subject 1. Another NHPR journalist (Victim 2) also contributed to the article, which appeared on NHPR’s website during and after March 2022. Thereafter, it is alleged that Cockerline, Waselchuck and Saniatan conspired with each other and with at least one other individual – allegedly identified as a close personal associate of Subject 1 — to retaliate against NHPR and Victims 1 and 2 by vandalizing the victims’ homes with bricks and large rocks, as well as spray-painting lewd and threatening language on the homes’ exteriors. It is alleged that the following acts of vandalisms occurred in April and May 2022:

  • At approximately 11:00 p.m. on April 24, 2022, a brick was thrown through a front exterior window of Victim’s 1’s former residence in Hanover, N.H. The word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on the front door;
  • On the evening of April 24, 2022 or during the early morning hours of April 25, 2022, the word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on the front door of Victim 2’s home in Concord, N.H. The exterior of the home was also damaged by a large rock, which appeared to have been thrown at the house;
  • Shortly before midnight on April 24, 2022 or during the early morning hours of April 25, 2022, a softball-sized rock was thrown through a front exterior window of Victim 1’s parents’ home in Hampstead, N.H. The word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on one of the garage doors;
  • At approximately 12:54 a.m. on May 21, 2022, Victim 1’s parents’ home in Hampstead was vandalized a second time. The word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on one of the garage doors. Although no windows were broken, a brick was discovered on the ground near the house’s foundation as if it had been thrown at the house; and
  • At approximately 5:54 a.m. on May 21, 2022, a brick was thrown through an exterior window of Victim 1’s house in Melrose, Mass. The phrase “JUST THE BEGINNING” was spray-painted in large red letters on the front of the home.

The charging documents allege that Cockerline, Saniatan and Waselchuck are responsible for committing all five of these vandalisms.

The charge of conspiracy to commit interstate stalking carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, a fine of up to $250,000 and restitution.  Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and statutes which govern the determination of a sentence in a criminal case.

Acting U.S. Attorney Levy and FBI Acting SAC DiMenna made the announcement today. Valuable assistance was provided by the Concord, Hampstead and Hanover, New Hampshire Police Departments and the Melrose, Massachusetts Police Department. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Hampshire provided valuable assistance. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jason A. Casey and Torey B. Cummings of Levy’s Criminal Division are prosecuting the case.

The details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.


NHPR case illustrates the limits of actual malice

U.S. Supreme Court. Photo (cc) by Kjetil Ree

The harassment endured by Lauren Chooljian, a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio, is frightening and horrifying. David Enrich of The New York Times reported last week (free link) that Chooljian, her parents and her editor have been subjected to vandalism and threats after she reported on sexual misconduct allegations against Eric Spofford, who founded the state’s largest network of addiction treatment centers.

Spofford denies having anything to do with the vandalism. But there’s an interesting wrinkle to the case that I want to discuss, and that’s Spofford’s libel suit against Chooljian and NHPR. Because of Spofford’s prominence, he has been designated as a public figure, which means that he must show actual malice (as well as falsity and defamation) in order to win his suit. Actual malice, as you probably know, requires that the plaintiff prove the defendant published the offending material despite knowing or strongly suspecting it was false.

NHPR has been ordered by Judge Daniel St. Hilaire to turn over transcripts of interviews, including with anonymous sources. “Legal experts,” Enrich wrote, “called the ruling unusual and alarming, saying such decisions could make it harder for journalists to investigate potential wrongdoing by public figures.” And Enrich quoted one of those experts, Chad Bowman, as saying it was “‘deeply troubling’ for a judge to force journalists to hand over unpublished materials when the plaintiff hadn’t yet made a viable legal claim.”

The last part of that statement is the key: Spofford has not yet presented the sort of evidence that would suggest he could win if allowed to proceed. St. Hilaire seems to be putting the cart before the horse. But if Spofford does have a viable case, then he’s entitled to gather the evidence he needs to pursue it. Remember, he needs to prove actual malice. That means it’s essential that he be allowed to probe the inner workings of Chooljian’s and NHPR’s reporting and editing processes to see whether they knew what they were broadcasting was false or if they harbored any serious doubts about it.

At one time libel had been regarded as what you might call a no-fault tort. That is, if you could show that you had been defamed with falsehoods, then you would win your case, regardless of the news organization’s motivation. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch, however, the Supreme Court ruled that even private individuals would have to prove negligence. With at least two members of the current Supreme Court, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, having suggested they’d like to revisit libel law, it’s worth thinking about whether negligence might be a better standard than actual malice, even for public officials and public figures.

The problem with actual malice has always been that though it makes it extremely difficult for a plaintiff to win a libel suit against the news media, it also gives the plaintiff entree into a news outlet’s private communications. Consider that, in 2005, The Boston Globe lost a libel suit brought by a doctor in the case of Betsy Lehman, a Globe reporter who died after receiving a massive overdose of a chemotherapy drug. In that case, the judge ruled that Dr. Lois Ayash won what turned out to be a $2 million judgment by default after the Globe refused to turn over its confidential sources, as the judge had ordered.

Ayash was entitled to that information, but there was no way the Globe was going to betray its confidential sources. If a negligence standard had been in effect rather than actual malice, then the jury could have determined whether the Globe had acted negligently without probing into its reporting processes.

So, too, with the NHPR case. The problem here, again, is that it’s not clear whether Chooljian reported anything that was false. Truth is almost always considered an absolute defense in a libel case, which is why Judge St. Hilaire seems to be acting prematurely. Nevertheless, the case is a good illustration of why actual malice — defined in the landmark Times v. Sullivan case in 1964 — may have been a mistake, and why negligence may be a more workable standard.

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