GRAND FORKS — A Grand Forks candidate for the North Dakota Legislature is considering legal action against a Forum News Service columnist who, she and her lawyer claim, mischaracterized her departure from the University of North Dakota.
Jackie Hoffarth and her lawyer, David Thompson, indicated on Wednesday that they’re weighing a libel lawsuit against Rob Port, whose work appears in newspapers owned by Forum Communications Co., which owns Forum News Service.
“We believe Rob recklessly disregarded the truth by wrongfully stating, expressing, that Jackie was dismissed,” Thompson said. “When she’s running for office, seeking voter support, for Port to allege, falsely, and falsely claim that Jackie was dismissed is wrong, and it’s defamatory.”
An April 28 Port column headline said "Public records show Democratic legislative candidate was dismissed from UND for having romantic relationship with a student." Hoffarth, who is running to represent northerly Grand Forks in the Legislature, and Thompson both insisted that is not the case.
“I voluntarily resigned from my position,” said Hoffarth, who also is a member of the Grand Forks School Board. “It was my decision.”
Port that day published documents that he received via a public records request. An Aug. 27 letter from Kenneth Flanagan, the chair of the university’s social work department, said the school intended to dismiss Hoffarth over her relationship with the student, who had graduated from UND with a bachelor’s degree earlier that month but was set to stay at the school to pursue a master’s degree. Hoffarth appealed to a university committee on Sept. 13, but ultimately signed a resignation agreement on Nov. 21 that, in effect, kept her on the school’s payroll through the end of June 2020.
Port declined to comment for this article.
When the Grand Forks Herald first reported on Feb. 7, 2020, that Hoffarth was scheduled to address a complaint before the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, Hoffarth did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Later that month, she said the complaint was submitted by her former coworkers at the university, who alleged she had an improper relationship with a student there. Port wrote in a Feb. 26 column that Hoffarth owed a more thorough explanation than the one she gave. The column that contains the public documents and claims Hoffarth was “dismissed” from the university was published in late April.
On Wednesday, Hoffarth and Thompson indicated that they’re disputing Port’s characterization in part because they believe some Grand Forks-area Republican "operatives" are planning to use his column to smear Hoffarth as she pursues a seat in the Legislature.
“We’ve received direct information that people associated with the Republican candidates’ campaigns in District 18 were intending to, essentially, parrot Rob Port’s dismissal claim,” Thompson said. “And otherwise inaccurately describe what actually occurred in Jackie’s instance in connection with her negotiated departure.”
Thompson characterized the people behind that plan as “longtime Republican political operatives in this city” who are behind an attempt to disparage her.
Hoffarth said the Port column and the suspected mailer both are reasons for the press conference she and Thompson called on Wednesday.
“All of those things combined are going to be kind of these undertows in voters’ minds,” she said.
Libel is notoriously difficult to prove, especially for public figures who feel they’ve been victimized. In broad terms, libel cases hinge on showing whether someone deliberately published false statements of fact that damaged another person’s reputation. In North Dakota, it’s defined as “a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes the person to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure the person in the person's occupation.”