A Kentucky judge on Wednesday dismissed the lawsuit filed by college basketball referee John Higgins against Kentucky Sports Radio, ruling the company’s on-air and online comments criticizing Higgins in the wake of his call of a 2017 NCAA Tournament game are protected free speech.
Higgins, his family and his business suffered thousands of harassing phone calls and online comments in the days after Kentucky men’s basketball team’s Elite Eight loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament as many, including the defendants, were critical of Higgins’ officiating performance.
Higgins sued KSR, its founder Matt Jones and managing editor Drew Franklin for allegedly encouraging that harassment.
“While Plaintiffs’ frustration is understandable and their damages are real, in some instances the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides special protection to speech on matters of public concern, even if that speech is revolting and upsetting,” wrote U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood in his order dismissing the case with prejudice. “ ... after reviewing the entire record and considering the content, form, and context of the allegedly tortious speech, the Court has reached the conclusion that Defendants’ speech, broadcast in various forms on radio, television, and the internet, involved matters of public concern. Thus, the speech enjoys special protection and the First Amendment prevents the Plaintiffs from using tort actions to silence and punish the Defendants for engaging in protected speech.”
Higgins alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, tortious interference with a business relationship or expectancy, negligence, harassment, engaging in harassing communications, and civil conspiracy, aiding and abetting, and complicity.
But Hood held that the KSR comments on both the game and the subsequent news story that developed from the harassing calls and negative reviews of Higgins’ business were part of the public debate. Higgins and his family also received death threats.
“Of course, some individuals listening to Defendants’ programming may have felt emboldened or encouraged to publicly express their anger toward Higgins,” Hood wrote. “But to hold the Defendants responsible for these third-party actions would potentially quell open debate and commentary on public events and issues.”
Higgins originally sought to have the case heard in his home state of Nebraska, but KSR successfully got a judge to move the case to Kentucky last year.
“I am pleased that the Federal Judge recognized that KSR, Drew and I are not responsible for any actions that third parties may have taken against Mr Higgins,” Jones tweeted. “I hope the many media members and outlets that thoroughly, and on multiple occasions, covered the allegations in this lawsuit will equally cover the dismissal of the claims.”