A reporter investigates sexual misconduct. Then the attacks began.

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A reporter investigates sexual misconduct. Then the attacks began.

On a rainy Saturday last May, a slender man in a blue suit approached a house in the Boston suburb of Melrose. It was just before 6am 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. He then threw a brick through a large window and fled.

The house belonged to Lauren Kuljian, a journalist with New Hampshire Public Radio. Hours earlier, her parents’ home in New Hampshire was also vandalized – for the second time in a month. Weeks earlier, her editor’s home had also been raided.

The vandal’s message of three words in red will prove to be accurate. What began as a series of vandalism incidents has mushroomed over the past year into a bare-knuckle legal battle with important First Amendment implications.

Attacks on journalists in the United States have become commonplace. Last year, the US Press Freedom Tracker identified 41 journalists who were physically assaulted. In one extreme case, a Nevada politician was accused of murdering a reporter who was investigating him.

Defamation lawsuits are also on the rise, according to the latest data compiled by the Media Law Resource Center. Many legal experts said such suits are often used to punish smaller news organizations for aggressive coverage and to deter others from speaking out.

And sometimes, as Ms. Chooljian and New Hampshire Public Radio learned, physical and legal threats merge. Their ordeal is a stark example of the dangers news organizations face in an era when politicians routinely demonize journalists and some judges want to curtail the First Amendment protections the press has long enjoyed.

Raising the stakes for press freedom, a state judge in New Hampshire last week ordered NHPR to allow it to review transcripts of interviews with certain sources, including those who agreed to speak anonymously. Legal experts called the ruling unusual and troubling, saying such rulings could make it harder for journalists to investigate potential wrongdoing by public figures.

Shortly before the houses in Massachusetts and New Hampshire were vandalized, Ms. Chuljan published an investigation into alleged sexual abuse by Eric Spofford, the founder of New Hampshire’s largest chain of addiction rehab centers. Her house was raided less than two days after New Hampshire Public Radio refused Mr. Spofford’s request to take down Ms. Chuljan’s online article.

Mr Spofford denied the allegations of a sexual offense and said he had nothing to do with the vandalism. (The man in the blue suit 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 attribute the attacks to him “to try to deter’ from filing a lawsuit because they know I will win. Mr. Spofford soon sued NHPR and Ms. Chooljian, among others, for defamation.

Ms Chuljan and her colleagues do not know who is behind the vandalism, but are convinced it is linked to their investigation into Mr Spofford.

“This is what it’s like to be a journalist in America today,” Ms. Chuljan said in an interview.

Mr. Spofford said in a statement that The New York Times was spreading the same “false allegations” that NHPR aired. “We should all be concerned when the media joins in dishonest character assassination,” he said.

This week, New Hampshire Public Radio is launching a podcast, “The 13th Step,” about Mr. Spofford’s investigation and the broader recovery industry, and the threats the news organization faces along the way.

On the advice of NHPR’s security consultants, Ms. Chuljan and her family will move out of the state.

Mr. Spofford, the founder of Granite Recovery Centers, was a big fish in New Hampshire. He has testified before Congress and advised state governor Chris Sununu on the opioid epidemic. He built a personal brand — including more than a million followers on social media — in part by regaling audiences with stories about his history of drug abuse.

NHPR’s reporting on Mr. Spofford began in 2020 when Ms. Chouljian wrote an article about a Covid-19 outbreak at a granite recovery facility. She was then tipped off about allegations of sexual abuse against Mr Spofford. Over the next 15 months, she interviewed dozens of current and former Granite Recovery employees and patients. (Mr. Spofford sold his company in late 2021 for what he said was $115 million.)

In February 2022, Ms. Chooljian presented her findings to Mr. Spofford. His attorney at the time, Mitchell Schuster, said his client “vehemently denies any alleged wrongdoing.” Mr. Schuster accused Ms. Chuljan of engaging in “dishonest reporting and malicious conduct.” He also called Ms. Chooljian’s editor, Daniel Barrick, to complain.

On March 22, NHPR published the investigation that is at the center of Mr. Spofford’s defamation lawsuit. A former Granite Recovery patient described how Mr Spofford sent her inappropriate chat messages. A former employee said Mr. Spofford sexually assaulted her. Piers Kaniuka, Granite Recovery’s former spiritual life director, said he resigned in 2020 after an employee told him that Mr Spofford had sexually assaulted her.

A day after the exposé came out, Mr. Spofford’s lawyers sent letters to several people who had spoken to Ms. Kuljan. The letters warn that Mr. Spofford is planning a lawsuit and that recipients of the letter should retain all written communications and other materials related to the report.

A few weeks later, on April 24, Ms. Chooljian and her husband were in Colorado when she received a message from her mother. Someone had thrown a rock through her parents’ window and spray-painted a vulgar word on their garage door in red paint.

Ms. Chulian called Mr. Barrick, the editor who had recently taken a call from Mr. Spofford’s lawyer. He told Ms Chooljian that the same word had been spray painted on his house.

The next day, Ms. Chooljian learned that a house she and her husband had previously lived in had also been vandalized.

Her parents urged her and Mr Barrick to review Mr Spofford’s investigation. “Maybe it’s not a good idea,” her father, Barry Chouljian, recalled.

Meanwhile, Ms Chuljan’s sources have come under pressure from Mr Spofford’s lawyers. After lawyers threatened to sue Mr Kaniuka, a former head of spiritual life at Granite Recovery, he wrote a notarized letter to Ms Chooljian expressing “regret”, among other things, for comparing Mr Spofford to Harvey Weinstein. He has not retracted his claims that he resigned over an alleged assault.

Misty D. Maris, another of Mr. Spofford’s lawyers at the time, wrote to at least one of Ms. Kuljian’s sources that Mr. Kaniuka had recused himself and insisted that she do the same — or risk being sued . (The source declined.) A similar message was sent to NHPR’s board of trustees, demanding that Ms. Chuljan’s article be removed from its website.

The next day, May 19, Sigmund D. Schutz, the attorney representing NHPR, responded that the radio station would not take the article down. If Mr. Spofford sues, “he will run afoul of the buzzword called the First Amendment,” Mr. Schutz wrote.

Around 1 a.m. on May 21, someone attacked Ms. Chuljan’s parents’ home for the second time. About five hours later, Ms. Chooljian’s doorbell camera captured video of the man in the blue raincoat breaking her window.

FBI agents and federal prosecutors in Boston are investigating the vandalism, according to three people familiar with their efforts. They are looking into Mr. Spofford’s potential involvement, one of the people said.

One of Mr. Spofford’s lawyers, Howard Cooper, said that “no member of law enforcement has ever asked to interview Mr. Spofford about his possible involvement.” Mr. Spofford speculated last year that the perpetrator may have been one of Ms. Chuljan’s sources. Or noting that he had many supporters, he said that “perhaps one of them felt compelled to carry out these acts in a misguided attempt to protect me.”

NHPR hired security guards to protect Ms. Chooljian’s home, which was soon equipped with security cameras, driveway alarms and motion detectors. The network’s offices in Concord were equipped with reinforced doors. To pay the bill, the station privately solicited money from a small circle of donors.

Ms. Chooljian said new sources have agreed to talk about the longer podcast series. The attacks caused some to change their minds.

In September, Mr. Spofford filed a 90-page libel suit against NHPR, Ms. Chooljian, Mr. Barrick and others, including three of the sources in the March article. The suit in New Hampshire state court alleges the article used unreliable sources to smear Mr. Spofford. It said Ms Chooljian was “tainted by a selfish ambition for personal recognition”.

NHPR decided to reject the claim. Mr. Schutz, the radio station’s lawyer, argued that Mr. Spofford’s national prominence made him a public figure, meaning that to win damages he would have to prove that NHPR knew what it published was false or acted with reckless disregard for accuracy. Mr. Schutz wrote that the lawsuit “offers not a hint of factual support” for claims that Ms. Chuljan acted recklessly.

“The purpose of this litigation is just with the filing, win or lose, to silence the critics,” Mr. Schutz said at a court hearing in January.

In April, Judge Daniel I. St. Hilaire, granted the motion to dismiss, noting that the lawsuit does not “allege that the NHPR defendants acted with actual malice in their reports.” He said Mr. Spofford could file an amended complaint that better established the necessary facts.

Before refiling the suit, Mr. Spofford’s lawyers told the judge they needed the tapes and notes of Ms. Chuljan’s interviews with certain sources, including two who spoke to her on a confidential basis. Otherwise, Mr. Spofford argued, it is almost impossible to prove that NHPR acted recklessly.

The NHPR argued that this would be a dangerous encroachment on the freedom of the press.

Last week, Judge St. Hilaire ruled that NHPR must provide him with Ms. Chooljian’s notes and interview transcripts, with identifying details of the anonymous sources redacted. The judge said he would assess the relevance of the materials before ruling on whether NHPR should share them with Mr Spofford.

“I am confident that these materials will show that they knew they were defaming me,” Mr. Spofford said in his statement.

The decision addresses what some lawyers say is an unfair imbalance in defamation 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 failed to present evidence of recklessness.

But media lawyers expressed concern about the decision. Chad R. Bowman, a lawyer who has represented many news organizations in defamation cases, including The Times, said it was “deeply troubling” for a judge to compel journalists to turn over unpublished material when the plaintiff has not yet made a viable legal claim.

On a recent Tuesday night, Ms. Chooljian was asked how she felt about her soon-to-be-released podcast. “I’m worried someone is going to get hurt,” she said.

She sat in her house next to a framed poster that read Ask More Questions. It hangs next to the window that the vandal broke. Small dents from bricks and broken glass are still visible on the windowsill.

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