Basketball

Referee who received threats appeals after dismissal of lawsuit against Kentucky Sports Radio

A referee wants an appeals court to reinstate his lawsuit against a sports media company over threats he received from University of Kentucky fans.

Referee John Higgins said his family and his Nebraska roofing business, Weatherguard, received thousands of phone calls in the days after he worked Kentucky’s 2-point loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Higgins, along with his wife and his business, filed a federal lawsuit against Kentucky Sports Radio, founder Matt Jones and managing editor Drew Franklin in October of 2017. The lawsuit alleged that Kentucky Sports Radio published Higgins’ contact information and encouraged fans to use it.

The appeal documents filed Monday argued that the U.S. District Court was wrong to dismiss Higgins’ complaint. The First Amendment did not excuse the defendants’ “lawless” activity, Higgins’ appeal said in arguing that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit should reverse the lawsuit’s dismissal so that it can continue toward a trial.

Some of the phone messages left for Higgins personally and at his business were threatening, resulting in the “necessary protection provided by the sheriff’s department, police department, FBI and bodyguards,” according to the appeal.

U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood dismissed the lawsuit in March, writing that Higgins’ frustration was understandable. But the First Amendment “provides special protection to speech on matters of public concern, even if that speech is revolting and upsetting,” Hood said.

In the appellant court brief filed on Monday, Higgins’ attorneys said that the defendants’ “personal vendetta against Mr. Higgins cannot be characterized as a matter of public concern where Defendants invited their co-conspirators to ‘join in on the fun’ and ‘continue the hatred’ for John Higgins.”

In addition to phone calls, UK fans took to Higgins’ business’ Facebook page, leaving fake negative reviews. Fake reports were also made to the Better Business Bureau about Weatherguard, according to court records. The company’s Google star rating dropped from 4.8 to 1.2.

The appeal alleges that Jones encouraged the fake reviews and harassment by laughing about it and discussing them on his show.

In the original lawsuit, Higgins said that the fallout cost his family and business more than $75,000.

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