Judge rules in favor of NHPR in defamation suit brought by recovery center founder

Apr. 18—A Rockingham County trial judge has thrown out a defamation suit brought by the founder of Granite Recovery Centers against New Hampshire Public Radio and several of its journalists.

The 23-page order deals with a March 2022 report about allegations of sexual misconduct, abusive leadership and retaliation by Eric Spofford, the founder of Granite Recovery Centers and at one point one of the most influential people in the state's battle against the drug epidemic.

In his order, Superior Court Judge Daniel St. Hilaire rejected Spofford's contention that sources in the article were unreliable or biased against him. Biases and motives to lie are not fatal to the credibility of the sources, St. Hilaire wrote.

"If anything, the fact that (former Human Resources Director Nancy) Bourque, (former Chief Operating Officer Brian) Stoesz, and (former Director of Spiritual Life Piers) Kaniuka all appear to have quit or were fired from GRC in connection with these sexual misconduct allegations lends credence to their accounts," the judge wrote.

St. Hilaire granted requests by NHPR, Bourque and Justin Downey, a person quoted in the article, to dismiss the suit. But he said Spofford was free to change his complaint to add facts that would show actual malice and submit it within 30 days.

A telephone call to Spofford's lawyer, Joseph Cacace of Boston, was not immediately returned.

In an email, Jim Schachter, the president and chief executive of NHPR, said the station stood by its journalists and will continue to vigorously defend their work. Spofford brought suit against the station and three of its employees.

"Today's ruling reinforces how important it is for responsible, independent journalists to have protection under the law to hold powerful people and institutions accountable," Schachter wrote.

Actual malice is the legal standard set in defamation and libel cases brought by public figures. They must show that the person they accuse of defamation or libel knew at the time that they made false statements or they did so with a reckless disregard for the truth.

St. Hilaire said that several complaints by Spofford about the article did not rise to the level of actual malice. Those included ill will toward the subject of an article, use of anonymous sources, a refusal to modify or withdraw an article once sources disputed or backed away from it, and publication of the article without interviewing a key source.

St. Hilaire also rejected a claim of false light invasion of privacy.

Several organizations, including the Union Leader Corp., New England First Amendment Coalition, Caledonian Record and ACLU-New Hampshire filed briefs in support of NHPR in the case.