North Carolina

Author Nicholas Sparks cleared in lawsuit involving anti-LGBT claims at NC school

Author Nicholas Sparks didn’t do anything wrong when he fired a school headmaster who accused him of discriminating against minority students and barring an LGBTQ club at the North Carolina private school he founded, a jury reportedly decided Wednesday.

Sparks, who lives in North Carolina and writes many books set in the state, was sued by Saul Hillel Benjamin, headmaster at the Epiphany School of Global Studies in New Bern. Benjamin’s controversial exit in 2013 led to the federal lawsuit, which played out in a six-day federal trial.

The jury ultimately cleared Sparks on all counts of defamation and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to ABC11, The News & Observer’s media partner.

“I am grateful for the jury’s verdict in favor of myself, the Epiphany School and the Nicholas Sparks Foundation,” Sparks said after the verdict, ABC11 reported. “The verdict speaks volumes, and completely rejects the campaign waged by Mr. Benjamin and his lawyers in an attempt to discredit Epiphany and me. As my testimony made clear, I have always been personally supportive of gay rights, gay marriage, and gay adoption.”

Sparks, author of such books as “The Notebook” and “A Walk to Remember,” apologized in a June tweet when controversial emails filed in the suit surfaced.

Some said the emails showed Sparks as “intolerant” of the creation of an LGBTQ club at the school, The News & Observer reported.

“As someone who has spent the better part of my life as a writer who understands the power of words, I regret that mine have potentially hurt young people and members of the LGBTQ community, including my friends and colleagues in that community,” he wrote in the apology.

After nearly five years of litigation, the suit went to trial Aug. 14.

Benjamin said he was “physically intimidated, threatened, and assaulted” before being unjustly fired in 2013 after just five months on the job, according to the amended complaint.

Sparks then allegedly told parents and job recruiters that Benjamin was mentally ill, according to the lawsuit.

“In reality, the non-fiction version of Defendant Sparks feels free, away from public view, to profess and endorse vulgar and discriminatory views about African-Americans, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (“LGBT”) individuals, and individuals of non-Christian faiths,” Benjamin said in an amended complaint from 2015.

Benjamin told ABC11 during the trial that Sparks didn’t support minority groups, saying he failed to back “diversity at the school or an LGBT club there,” the media outlet reported.

“It’s one thing to say you admire and love all people,” Benjamin reportedly told ABC11. “It’s another thing to support them when they’re at risk. That’s what I was trying to do, is protect kids.”

But Sparks said in court Aug. 15 that the LGBT club had nothing to do with Benjamin’s firing, saying instead the former headmaster “lied about his previous work experience, disappeared without explanation during school hours, berated employees and accused parents and others of being bigots or racists,” the Associated Press reported.

Benjamin also allegedly accepted $150,000 to resign, according to the AP.

Jurors were asked to determine the nature of Benjamin’s exit from the school and whether it was voluntary, whether Epiphany had sufficient cause to remove him, whether the former headmaster having a “mental disability” played a role in the decision and whether Sparks defamed him, court documents show.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.
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