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Judge hears arguments in case alleging NHPR defamed former NH drug recovery leader

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

Lawyers for Eric Spofford, who founded and ran New Hampshire’s largest network of substance misuse recovery centers, were in court Tuesday arguing that his defamation lawsuit against broadcaster New Hampshire Public Radio should be allowed to proceed to trial.

Spofford filed a civil lawsuit against NHPR following the publication of an investigation in March 2022 that detailed allegations of sexual misconduct involving former employees and a former patient at Granite Recovery Centers.

During a hearing before Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Dan St. Hilaire, NHPR’s attorney Sigmund Schutz defended the station’s reporting methods for the investigation as “careful, meticulously sourced, and comprehensive.”

Spofford “can deny that these accusations are true, but he can’t deny that the accusations were in fact made,” said Schutz.

The original article, which ran on the station’s airwaves as well as its website, relied on both named and anonymous sources, and included Spofford’s denial of the sexual misconduct claims.

His lawyers told the judge that the broadcaster’s framing of the story inaccurately implied that Spofford was facing a criminal investigation into his conduct, and that the piece has damaged his reputation.

“No amount of journalistic gymnastics by caveating some sentences, but not all, can change the facts of how the words in total were understood,” said attorney Howard Cooper.

Cooper also argued that Spofford should be considered a private citizen, rather than a public figure, entitling him to a stronger degree of protection from defamation. Lawyers for NHPR disputed that characterization, noting Spofford is a published author and a prominent advocate for substance misuse recovery treatment.

The ACLU of New Hampshire, as well as the Union Leader and Caledonian Record newspapers, submitted amicus briefs in the case on behalf of NHPR, arguing that the reporting involving Spofford wasn’t malicious, and that allowing the case to move to trial could have a chilling effect on free speech.

Schutz reiterated that argument Tuesday, warning that lawsuits deter “people from coming forward, not just with regard to Mr. Spofford, but regarding any public figure who has the resources to engage in this kind of no holds barred litigation.”

The judge didn’t immediately rule on whether he will dismiss the case, or allow it to go to trial.

Editor’s note: In keeping with NHPR’s practice around reporting on internal matters, no other NHPR staff or leadership reviewed this story prior to publication. The story was edited by Cori Princell of the New England News Collaborative.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.