UNH professor loses federal defamation appeal

Posted Dec. 22, 2011, at 8:20 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — A federal appeals court has rejected a University of New Hampshire professor’s claims the school defamed him by alerting staff to call security if he violated an order banning him from campus after he said he could “kill” another professor.

Associate Professor John Collins has waged an unsuccessful two-year court fight stemming from his expletive-laden tirade and threats of violence against a colleague he thought was responsible for reporting him when he parked in a loading zone on June 28, 2007.

After getting a parking ticket, Collins entered a classroom building, cursed and said he could “kill” the professor he thought was responsible. He then kicked a large can.

The outburst occurred less than three months after a shooting at Virginia Tech left 33 people, including the gunman, dead and heightened safety concerns on campuses nationwide.

The day after Collins’ tirade, he was arrested by campus police on allegations of disorderly conduct and stalking. The professor who was the target of his threats obtained a restraining order barring him from having any contact with her.

UNH sent an email to staffers and faculty members of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture informing them of Collins’ arrest and telling them he was banned from campus.

“Anyone who sees Dr. Collins anywhere on campus should avoid contact with him and immediately notify the UNH police department,” the email stated.

Collins, who acknowledged to the dean that his behavior had been inappropriate, was permitted to resume teaching in January 2008 after being cleared of disorderly conduct and stalking charges. Later that year, he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Concord, alleging false arrest, defamation of character and violation of his due process rights. He said the email to staff implied he was “armed and dangerous.”

He also claimed he should have been entitled to a hearing before he was suspended with pay and banned from the campus.

A New Hampshire judge ruled in the university’s favor on all claims. On the defamation count, U.S. Magistrate Judge Landya McCafferty ruled the email’s implication that Collins was dangerous was “substantially true.”

Collins appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which this week unanimously upheld the lower court ruling.

Attorney Paul McEachern, who represents Collins, said Thursday his client’s legal crusade is done.

“The First Circuit has the final word in this case,” McEachern said. “Due process is what the court says it is, and we accept that, but we obviously had a different view.”

He stressed Collins remains a “respected professor” at UNH.

The professor who was the target of Collins’ tirade had previously reported him for parking in the loading zone, but the latest court ruling didn’t address whether she had reported him the day he got the ticket.

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