Rarely used statute in Vermont helps student journalists escape a frivolous libel lawsuit

VERMONT — A federal magistrate has dismissed as frivolous a libel lawsuit filed by a North Carolina politician who claimed his 2012 presidential campaign was destroyed by a profile written by two student journalists from St. Michael’s College.

John D. Haywood, a lawyer from Durham, N.C., filed the lawsuit after the students’ profile was published on a class website days before the New Hampshire primary. In a judgment issued this month, Haywood — who garnered 432 votes in the primary to President Barack Obama’s 49,000 — was ordered to pay $23,336 in attorney’s fees, both for the students and the college facing the suit. 

The dismissal order invoked a Vermont statute that aims to curb Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, more commonly known as “SLAPP” lawsuits. SLAPP suits are those that target ordinary citizens and burden them with legal costs as a means of silencing public debate. 

The use of Vermont’s anti-SLAPP law, passed in 2005, is “extremely rare,” according to William Towle, the students’ attorney. The case is the second federal district court case in the state to be dismissed on anti-SLAPP grounds, he said. 

In a brief supporting the dismissal, Towle described Haywood as a “poster child” for what the statute is intended to address and described his allegations as “quibbles and nitpicks” that cause “no recognizable injury.” 

“In sum, the students are exactly the sort of people the statute is designed to protect – completely and constitutionally protected reporters of a public figure running for President,” Towle wrote in the brief. 

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