Matt Jones from Kentucky Sports Radio

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A judge has dismissed NCAA basketball official John Higgins' federal lawsuit against Kentucky Sports Radio and its operators, Matt Jones and Drew Franklin, ruling their comments about the referee are protected by the First Amendment.

While saying Higgins and his family's "frustration is understandable and their damages are real," U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Hood ruled free speech is protected "even if that speech is revolting and upsetting."

Higgins sued the University of Kentucky fan media outlet in October 2017, claiming he and his family were harmed when his personal and business information in Nebraska was shared online and on the radio after the University of Kentucky men's basketball team lost to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament that year.

As a result, Higgins argued, fans gave his business negative reviews and made threats to him and his loved ones.

Attorneys on behalf of KSR, Jones and Franklin argued they had no contacts in Nebraska and did not target any "activities towards readers or listeners in the state."

In his ruling, Hood noted that the case "presents a familiar situation where some sports fanatics overreacted about the outcome of a basketball game."

The judge pointed out that "post-game gripes and snarky remarks that were initially innocent enough quickly turned into something more sinister and unfortunate," resulting in thousands of calls to Higgins' home and business within days.

But while Jones and Franklin were accused of recruiting "an army of willing and upset fans to attack" Higgins, Hood found after reviewing the allegations, the comments by the two on radio, TV and online "involved matters of public concern.

"Thus the speech enjoys special protection and the First Amendment prevents" Higgins from using the courts "to silence and punish the Defendants for engaging in protected speech."

Still, the judge clearly struggled with the ruling, pointing out that it was a "narrow" decision and "this opinion does not indicate that the Court condones or approves of the actions."

The judge wrote that he is "sensitive to the real problem imposed by cyberbullying, especially in the age of social media." 

Judge Hood also pointed out that Higgins could sue fans who threatened him or his family. 

And, Hood noted that Higgins did not sue for defamation, so it was not considered in the case. 

In an interview, Jones said "it's been a long two-year process, but I’m pleased the court was able to differentiate between the acts of others and our coverage of them."

On twitter, Jones wrote that he hoped 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."

In his affidavit filed previously, Jones said he "never encouraged anyone to defame, harm, or interfere with the Plaintiffs or their business in any way shape or form. … In fact, on the radio show broadcast, I advised people to not take the actions described in" the lawsuit.

Franklin also said in his affidavit that he has never "made any agreement with, or made any offer to, anyone to harm, harass, defame, or interfere" with Higgins or his family or business.

The lawsuit claimed that while Jones told fans to stop this conduct, he read many of the comments directed at Higgins online on the radio.

The comments Jones did make – including "Oh my goodness, you know what his roofing company name is? Rooferees" – were "targeted" to the audience in Kentucky, not Nebraska, a motion to dismiss argued.

The judge said that while Jones and Franklin may have been "disingenuous" in discouraging fans from contacting Higgins, the fact they "expressed their disapproval of the actions" can't be ignored.

According to the judge: "This case presents a classic collision of rights situation. On one hand, the Plaintiffs assert their right to privacy and to be left alone. On the other hand, the Defendants assert their right to speak freely and openly."

But, the judge concluded, the actions were all taken surrounding a high-profile public event and to hold Jones and Franklin "responsible for these third-party actions would potentially quell open debate and commentary on public events and issues."

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Digital Reporter

Jason Riley is a criminal justice reporter for WDRB.com. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after 14 years with The Courier-Journal. He graduated from Western Kentucky University. Jason be reached at 502-585-0823 and jriley@wdrb.com.