A Reporter Investigated Sexual Misconduct. Then the Attacks Began.

On a rainy Saturday last May, a thin man in a blue raincoat approached a house in the Boston suburb of Melrose. It was just before 6am and no one was around. The man pulled out a red spray can and scribbled “It’s just the beginning!” by the White House. Then he threw a brick through a large window and ran off.

The house belonged to New Hampshire Public Radio journalist Lauren Choljan. Her family home in New Hampshire was also vandalized hours earlier, the second time in a month. A few weeks ago, her editor’s home was raided.

Destroyer’s three-word message in red will prove to be accurate. What began as a series of acts of vandalism has evolved over the past year into a bare-handed legal battle with significant implications for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Attacks on journalists are common in the United States.Last year, the US press freedom tracker Identified 41 journalists were physically assaulted. In one extreme, a Nevada politician was charged with murdering a reporter who was investigating him.

Defamation lawsuits are also on the rise. latest data Collected by the Media Law Resource Center. Many legal experts said such lawsuits are often used to punish smaller news outlets for aggressive reporting or to block other outlets from speaking out.

And as Ms. Choljan and New Hampshire Public Radio learned, physical and legal threats can overlap. Their ordeal comes at a time when politicians regularly demonize journalists and some judges want to curtail the First Amendment protections the press has enjoyed for years. A striking example of the dangers we face.

Raising awareness of press freedom, a New Hampshire judge last week ordered the NHPR to review transcripts of interviews with certain sources, including those who agreed to speak anonymously. Legal experts said the ruling was unusual and worrying, and that the decision could make it harder for journalists to investigate potential misconduct by public figures.

Shortly before homes were demolished in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Choljan published the following: investigation New Hampshire’s largest network of addiction rehabilitation centers was indicted for sexual misconduct by Eric Spofford. Less than two days after the New Hampshire public radio station rejected Mr. Spofford’s request to take down Ms. Chorgian’s online articles, her home was raided.

Spofford has denied allegations of sexual misconduct and said he had nothing to do with vandalism. (He’s not the guy in the blue raincoat in the video.) Last year, he launched an attack on himself by New Hampshire Public Radio, which has about 20 journalists, “to try to dissuade me.” accused of trying to turn They know I will win, so they want to avoid filing a lawsuit. Mr. Spofford immediately filed a defamation lawsuit against NHPR, Mr. Cholzian and others.

Mr. Chorzian and his colleagues do not know who was behind the vandalism, but they believe it is related to the investigation into Mr. Spofford.

“That’s what it’s like to be a journalist in America today,” Choljan said in an interview.

In a statement, Spofford said the New York Times was spreading the same “false accusations” that NHPR aired. “We should all be concerned when the press cooperates in the assassination of an unjust person,” he said.

New Hampshire Public Radio releases a podcast this week.13th stepdescribed the investigation into Mr. Spofford and the wider collections industry, and the threats the press faced along the way.

Following the advice of NHPR security consultants, Chorzian and his family will be evacuated out of state.

Mr Spofford, the founder of Granite Recovery Centers, was a big shot in New Hampshire.he had testified Congress and advised Governor Chris Sununu spoke out about the opioid epidemic. He has built a personal brand. One million Social Media Followers — In part, by engaging your audience with stories like his career About substance abuse.

NHPR’s coverage of Spofford began in 2020 when Choljan wrote: article Regarding the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Granite Recovery Facility. Later, she received information about sexual abuse allegations against Mr. Spofford. Over the next 15 months, she interviewed dozens of her Granite Recovery current and former employees and patients. (Why did Mr. Spofford sell the company at the end of 2021?) He said It was $115 million. )

In February 2022, Cholejian presented her findings to Spofford. His lawyer at the time Mitchell Schuster, said his client “strongly denies any allegations of wrongdoing.” Schuster accused Choljan of “dishonest reporting and malicious acts”. He also called Choljan’s editor, Daniel Barrick, to complain.

On March 22, the NHPR released its findings central to Spofford’s defamation lawsuit. A former Granite Recovery patient explained how Spofford sent her inappropriate chat messages. A former employee said Spofford sexually assaulted him. Piers Kanuka, former director of mental health at Granite Recovery, said she resigned in 2020 after an employee told her she was sexually assaulted by Spofford.

The day after the revelations, Mr. Spofford’s lawyers sent letters to several people who had spoken with Mr. Choljian. The letter warned that Mr. Spofford planned to sue and that recipients of the letter must preserve written communications and other materials related to the press.

A few weeks later, on April 24, Chorzian and her husband were in Colorado when they received a text message from their mother. Someone threw rocks through the windows of her parents’ house and sprayed vulgar words on her garage door with red paint.

Choljan called Barrick, the editor, who recently answered a call from Spofford’s lawyer. He told Chorzian that the same words had been spray-painted on his house.

The next day, Ms. Chorzian learned that the house she and her husband had previously lived in had also been destroyed.

Her parents urged her and Barrick to reconsider the Spofford investigation. “Maybe this is not a good idea,” said her father. Barry CholjanI remembered what I said.

Choljan’s sources, meanwhile, were under pressure from Spofford’s lawyers. After lawyers threatened to sue Mr. Kaniuka, the former head of spiritual life at Granite Recovery, he wrote a notarized letter to Mr. Cholzian, alleging, among other things, comparing Mr. Spofford to Harvey Weinstein. He expressed his “sorry”. He did not retract his own allegations that he had resigned over the assault allegations.

Misty D. MarisAnother of Spofford’s lawyers at the time wrote to at least one of Cholzian’s sources that Kaniuka backed down and insisted he should do the same or risk litigation. It was sent. (The sources declined.) A similar message reached the NHPR board, demanding that Mr. Chorzian’s article be removed from its website.

The next day, May 19th, Sigmund D. Schutz, NHPR’s attorney said the radio station would not remove the article. If Mr. Spofford files a lawsuit, “he’ll run into a buzzsaw named First Amendment,” Schutz wrote.

Around 1 a.m. on May 21, Cholzian’s parents’ house was attacked for the second time. About five hours later, Cholzian’s front door phone camera caught footage of a man in a blue raincoat breaking the window.

FBI agents in Boston and federal prosecutors are investigating the vandalism, according to three people familiar with their efforts. They are investigating Spofford’s possible involvement, one of the people said.

One of Spofford’s attorneys, Howard Cooper, said, “No one in law enforcement has requested a hearing about Spofford’s possible involvement.” Spofford speculated last year that the culprit was one of Chorzian’s sources. He also said that he had many followers, and that “perhaps one of them felt compelled to do this in a misguided attempt to defend me.” I guess,’ he said.

The NHPR hired security guards to protect Chorzian’s home, and security cameras, driveway alarms and motion detectors were soon installed. A reinforced door was installed in the network’s office in Concord. To cover the costs, the station secretly solicited funds from a small circle of donors.

Choljan said the new sources agreed to speak in a longer podcast series. Some people changed their minds after the attack.

In September, Mr. Spofford filed a 90-page defamation lawsuit against NHPR, Mr. Cholzian, Mr. Barrick and others, including three sources of the March story. A lawsuit in New Hampshire state court alleges that the article used unreliable sources to defame Spofford. The newspaper said Ms Chorzian was “tainted with selfish ambition for personal acclaim”.

The NHPR has sought dismissal of the lawsuit. Mr. Schutz, a radio station attorney, said Mr. Spofford’s national prominence made him a public figure, meaning that in order to win damages, NHPR knew what was being broadcast was false, He insisted that it was necessary to prove that he recklessly ignored the contents of the broadcast and acted. Accuracy. Schutz wrote that the lawsuit “provides no factual support” for allegations that Cholzian acted recklessly.

“The purpose of this lawsuit, win or lose, is to silence critics simply by bringing it up,” Schutz said at a January court hearing.

In April, Judge Daniel I. San Hilaire said: accept The complaint filed a motion to dismiss, pointing out that “the NHPR defendants have failed to allege that they actually acted in bad faith in their reporting.” He said Spofford may file an amended complaint that better establishes the necessary facts.

Spofford’s attorneys said before re-filing the lawsuit: Said The judge wanted recordings and notes of interviews between Ms. Cholzian and certain sources, including two who had privately spoken to her. Otherwise, Spofford argued, it would be nearly impossible to prove that the NHPR acted recklessly.

NHPR claimed It would be a dangerous violation of press freedom.

Last week, Judge Saint-Hilaire said: control NHPR said it needed to identify the details of the anonymous source that was redacted and provide him with his notes and interview transcripts. The judge said NHPR would assess the material’s relevance before deciding whether it should share it with Spofford.

“I believe these materials show that they knew they were defaming me,” Spofford said in a statement.

The ruling addresses what some attorneys argue is an unfair imbalance in defamation law. The best way for a plaintiff to prove that a journalist acted recklessly is by gathering information during discovery. However, many cases are dismissed before discovery begins because plaintiffs have not presented evidence of recklessness.

But lawyers for the media expressed concern over the ruling. Attorney Chad R. Bowman, who has represented numerous media outlets in defamation lawsuits, including The Times, said that the plaintiff had not yet presented legal evidence, but the judge had given the journalist undisclosed material. He said it would be “very problematic” to force the extradition of Claim.

On a recent Tuesday night, Cholzian was asked what he thought of the upcoming podcast. “I’m worried someone might get hurt,” she said.

In her house, she sat near a framed poster that read, “Ask me more.” It hangs next to a window broken by vandals. There are still small gouges in the bricks and broken glass on the windowsill.

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