Durham presidential candidate’s lawsuit tossed

Jan. 21, 2013 @ 07:24 PM

A Hope Valley man’s libel lawsuit against a Vermont college fared no better with a federal judge than his 2012 electoral challenge to President Barack Obama did with New Hampshire Democrats.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy in December dismissed Durham resident John Haywood’s attempt to recover at least $51 million from St. Michael’s College, a private liberal arts school, and two of its students.

Haywood sued last July, alleging that a profile the students wrote of him for an in-class project had “cruelly, maliciously and purposely” destroyed his campaign against Obama for the Democrat party nomination.

But Conroy said the lawsuit met none of the standards for a libel claim to go forward, be it under the common law of North Carolina or New Hampshire, or the U.S. Supreme Court doctrine for claims against public figures that’s been in place since 1964.

The suit also fell because of a 2006 Vermont law designed to discourage “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” better known as SLAPP suits, Conroy said.

Haywood claimed the students had mischaracterized his stands on the issues. But after studying his platform, Conroy thought any differences between it and the profile were “a hair’s breadth away” from the candidate’s actual positions.

“Libelous statements must be false; if a true statement causes injury, it is not libel,” the judge said, summarizing why that mattered under New Hampshire law.

Not stopping with ruling for St. Michael’s, Conroy also ordered Haywood to pay the legal bills the school and its students incurred to defend themselves. That amounted to $23,336.

Subsequent court filings indicate that Haywood has paid. But he has appealed Conroy’s ruling to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A lawyer for St. Michael’s told federal court clerks the school “reserves its right” to seek compensation from Haywood for any legal bills it incurs during the appellate fight.

Haywood said he sued because going to court “was my only remedy” for the students’ work, which appeared on the Web.

“I could have asked for a re-run of the New Hampshire primary, but it wouldn’t have been granted, and if it had been, I would have received about half the votes I got the first time,” he said on Monday. “Once you’re smeared, you’re dead and the only remedy is a libel suit.”

He added that the 1964 Supreme Court ruling Conroy invoked – which raised the bar for libel claims filed by elected officials or office-seekers – “has essentially made political candidates second class citizens.”

Obama’s re-election bid faced no major-candidate opposition in last year’s Democratic primaries, but the ballot in many states featured a number of low-profile challenges. Haywood’s was among them.

Haywood received 423 votes – to Obama’s 49,080 – in the New Hampshire primary. That was good for a ninth-place showing, eighth place going to a placeholder for write-ins of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

There were far more votes cast on the Republican side of the ballot, as eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney bested Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

But Haywood’s 423 votes was more than some well-known GOP figures received, notably Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, real estate mogul Donald Trump and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Bachmann ran but withdrew ahead of the New Hampshire voting, while the votes for Trump and Palin were write-ins. They received 350, 24 and 23 votes in Republican balloting, respectively.

If Haywood’s candidacy received little hometown attention, that was by design.

His lawsuit said he’d tried to reveal it to “as few people [as] possible” in North Carolina because most of his friends here are Republicans and his brother-in-law, a prominent Republican, is a state Supreme Court justice.

The suit didn’t name the judge, but Haywood in a brief interview acknowledged that his brother-in-law is N.C. Justice Robert Edmunds Jr. Durham property records confirm that Haywood’s wife is Mary Edmunds Haywood, and State Board of Elections records confirm that Haywood donated $1,200 to Justice Edmunds’ 2008 re-election campaign.

The plan was to wait to talk about the race locally “until such time as [Haywood] became a national figure” by winning “a substantial vote count” in New Hampshire, the lawsuit said.

Haywood is a registered Democrat. But his campaign literature said he “switched to the Republicans” in 1980 and stayed with them through the 2000 election that put former President George W. Bush in office. He voiced disagreements with the tax policies Bush and Obama pursued.