CONCORD, N.H. — One drizzly Saturday in May last year, a slender man in a blue raincoat approached a house in the Boston suburb of Melrose. It was just before 6 a.m., and no one was around. The man took out a can of red spray paint and scrawled “JUST THE BEGINNING!” on the side of the white house. Then he hurled a brick through a large window and sprinted away.
The house belonged to Lauren Chooljian, a journalist at New Hampshire Public Radio. Hours earlier, her parents’ home in New Hampshire had been vandalized, too — for the second time in a month. Weeks earlier, her editor’s home had also been attacked.
The vandal’s three-word message in red would prove accurate. What started as a string of vandalism incidents has mushroomed over the past year into a bare-knuckle legal brawl with important implications for the First Amendment.
Attacks on journalists in the United States have become common. Last year, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker identified 41 journalists who were physically assaulted. In one extreme case, a Nevada politician was charged with murdering a reporter investigating him.
Libel lawsuits have been on the rise, too, according to the latest data collected by the Media Law Resource Center. Many legal experts said such suits were often used to punish smaller news organizations for aggressive coverage and to deter others from speaking out.
And sometimes, as Chooljian and New Hampshire Public Radio have learned, the physical and legal threats converge. Their ordeal is a striking example of the perils facing news organizations in an era when politicians regularly demonize journalists and some judges want to curtail the First Amendment protections that the press has long enjoyed.
Heightening the freedom-of-the-press stakes, a state judge in New Hampshire last week ordered NHPR to let him review transcripts of its interviews with certain sources, including those who had agreed to speak on an anonymous basis. Legal experts called the ruling unusual and alarming, saying such decisions could make it harder for journalists to investigate potential wrongdoing by public figures.
Shortly before the houses in Massachusetts and New Hampshire were vandalized, Chooljian had published an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct by Eric Spofford, the founder of New Hampshire’s largest network of addiction rehabilitation centers. Her house was attacked less than two days after New Hampshire Public Radio refused Spofford’s demand to take down Chooljian’s online article.
Spofford has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct and has said he had nothing to do with the vandalism. (The man in the blue raincoat, who was caught on video, is not him.) Last year, he accused New Hampshire Public Radio, which has about two dozen journalists, of trying to pin the attacks on him “to try to deter me from bringing legal action, because they know I will win.” Spofford soon sued NHPR and Chooljian, among others, for libel.
Chooljian and her colleagues do not know who was behind the vandalism, but they are convinced that it was connected to their investigation into Spofford.
“That’s being a journalist in America today,” Chooljian said in an interview.
Spofford said in a statement that The New York Times was spreading the same “false accusations” that NHPR had aired. “We should all be concerned when media outlets team up in an unfair character assassination,” he said.
This week, New Hampshire Public Radio is releasing a podcast, “The 13th Step,” about its investigation into Spofford and the broader recovery industry, as well as the threats the news organization has faced along the way.
On the advice of NHPR’s security consultants, Chooljian and her family will be hunkering down out of state.
A vulgarity in red
Spofford, the founder of Granite Recovery Centers, was a big fish in New Hampshire. He had testified to Congress and advised the state’s governor, Chris Sununu, about the opioid epidemic. He built a personal brand — including more than 1 million social media followers — in part by regaling audiences with tales about his history of abusing drugs.
NHPR’s reporting on Spofford began in 2020 when Chooljian wrote an article about a COVID-19 outbreak at a Granite Recovery facility. She then got a tip about sexual abuse allegations against Spofford. Over the next 15 months, she interviewed dozens of current and former Granite Recovery employees and patients. (Spofford sold his company in late 2021 for what he said was $115 million.)
In February 2022, Chooljian presented her findings to Spofford. His lawyer at the time, Mitchell Schuster, said his client “vehemently denies any alleged misconduct.” Schuster accused Chooljian of engaging in “disingenuous reporting and malicious conduct.” He also phoned Chooljian’s editor, Daniel Barrick, to complain.
On March 22, NHPR published the investigation that is at the center of Spofford’s libel suit. A former Granite Recovery patient described how Spofford had sent her inappropriate chat messages. A former employee said Spofford had sexually assaulted her. Piers Kaniuka, Granite Recovery’s former director of spiritual life, said he resigned in 2020 after an employee told him that Spofford had sexually assaulted her.
The day after the exposé ran, Spofford’s lawyers sent letters to several people who had spoken to Chooljian. The letters warned that Spofford was planning a lawsuit and that recipients of the letter must preserve any written communications and other materials related to the reporting.
A few weeks later, on April 24, Chooljian and her husband were in Colorado when she received a text from her mother. Someone had thrown a rock through her parents’ window and sprayed a vulgar word on their garage door in red paint.
Chooljian called Barrick, the editor who had recently fielded the call from Spofford’s lawyer. He told Chooljian that the same word had been spray-painted on his house.
The next day, Chooljian learned that a house she and her husband previously lived in had also been vandalized.
Her parents urged her and Barrick to reconsider their investigation of Spofford. “Maybe this is not a good idea,” her father, Barry Chooljian, recalled saying.
Running into a ‘buzzsaw’
Lauren Chooljian’s sources, meanwhile, were under pressure from Spofford’s lawyers. After the lawyers threatened to sue Kaniuka, Granite Recovery’s former head of spiritual life, he wrote a notarized letter to Chooljian that expressed “regret” for, among other things, comparing Spofford to Harvey Weinstein. He did not retract his claims about having resigned because of an alleged assault.
Misty D. Marris, another of Spofford’s lawyers at the time, wrote to at least one of Chooljian’s sources that Kaniuka had recanted and insisted that she do the same — or risk being sued. (The source refused.) A similar message went to NHPR’s board of trustees, demanding that Chooljian’s article be removed from its website.
The next day, May 19, Sigmund D. Schutz, the lawyer representing NHPR, replied that the radio station would not take down the article. If Spofford sued, “he will run into a buzzsaw called the First Amendment,” Schutz wrote.
Around 1 a.m. on May 21, someone attacked the home of Chooljian’s parents for the second time. About five hours later, Chooljian’s doorbell camera captured video of the man in the blue raincoat smashing her window.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors in Boston are investigating the vandalism, according to three people with knowledge of their efforts. They are looking into Spofford’s potential involvement, one of the people said.
One of Spofford’s lawyers, Howard Cooper, said that “no member of law enforcement has ever requested to interview Mr. Spofford about his possible involvement.” Spofford speculated last year that the perpetrator might have been one of Chooljian’s sources. Or, noting that he had many supporters, he said that “perhaps one of them felt compelled to do these acts in a misguided attempt to defend me.”
NHPR hired security guards to protect Chooljian’s home, which was soon outfitted with security cameras, driveway alarms and motion detectors. The network’s offices in Concord were equipped with reinforced doors. To foot the bill, the station privately solicited money from a small circle of donors.
Chooljian said new sources had agreed to speak for the longer podcast series. The attacks led some to change their minds.
In September, Spofford filed a 90-page libel lawsuit against NHPR, Chooljian, Barrick and others, including three of the sources in the March article. The suit, in state court in New Hampshire, claimed that the article had used unreliable sources to smear Spofford. It said Chooljian was “tainted by a selfish ambition for personal acclaim.”
NHPR moved to dismiss the suit. Schutz, the radio station’s lawyer, argued that Spofford’s national prominence made him a public figure, which meant that to win damages, he had to prove that NHPR knew that what it was publishing was false or acted with reckless disregard for its accuracy. Schutz wrote that the suit “offers not a hint of factual support” for the claims that Chooljian acted recklessly.
“The objective of this litigation is that just by filing, win or lose, is to silence critics,” Schutz said at a court hearing in January.
In April, a judge, Daniel I. St. Hilaire, granted the motion to dismiss, noting that the lawsuit failed “to allege that the NHPR defendants acted with actual malice in their reporting.” He said Spofford could file an amended complaint that better established the necessary facts.
Before refiling the suit, Spofford’s lawyers told the judge, they needed the recordings and notes of Chooljian’s interviews with certain sources, including two who had spoken to her on a confidential basis. Otherwise, Spofford argued, it was all but impossible to prove that NHPR acted recklessly.
NHPR argued that would be a dangerous infringement on the freedom of the press.
Last week, St. Hilaire ruled that NHPR must provide him with Chooljian’s notes and interview transcripts, with identifying details about the anonymous sources redacted. The judge said he would assess the materials’ relevance before ruling on whether NHPR must share them with Spofford.
“I am confident that those materials will show they knew they were defaming me,” Spofford said in his statement.
The ruling addresses what some lawyers say is an unfair imbalance in libel law: The best way for a plaintiff to show that a journalist acted recklessly is by gathering information in the discovery process. Yet many lawsuits are dismissed before discovery begins, because the plaintiff didn’t present evidence of recklessness.
But media lawyers expressed concern about the ruling. Chad R. Bowman, a lawyer who has represented many news organizations in libel cases, including the Times, said it was “deeply troubling” for a judge to force journalists to hand over unpublished materials when the plaintiff hadn’t yet made a viable legal claim.
On a recent Tuesday evening, Chooljian was asked how she felt about her soon-to-be-released podcast. “I’m worried someone will get hurt,” she said.
She was sitting in her house near a framed poster with the words “Ask More Questions.” It hangs next to the window that the vandal smashed. Small gouges from the brick and broken glass are still visible on the windowsill.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.