Despite courtroom allegations of “fake news” and defamation, a judge has dismissed a restraining order against a sports journalist who was accused of harassment based on a series of tweets about the founder of a defunct Tucson athletic program.
Justice of the Peace Keith Bee ruled Friday that plaintiff Jeff Pichotta, a former director of the Tucson Tech prep school, did not meet the burden of proof to show sports journalist Ralph Amsden was harassing him on Twitter.
Amsden had been tweeting reminders to his followers about the failures of Pichotta’s athletic program, and the financial and emotional damage alleged by some of its participating athletes and their parents.
Outside the Pima County Consolidated Justice Court courtroom, Amsden said he should be relieved by the outcome. But he said he’s “spooked” after weeks of anxiety over the two “no-contact” restraining orders that would have made it impossible to do his job, for fear of encountering Pichotta on a sports sideline while reporting.
And since the restraining order was initially granted based solely on his Twitter posts, Amsden was fearful even re-tweeting his own stories, or reporting further on the Pichottas’ activities, could have gotten him in trouble.
“It scares me, as someone who thinks the First Amendment is important,” he said. “I feel like the right decision was made” to dismiss the order.
The Pichottas declined to comment after the hearing.
Bee said restraining orders are initially granted based on a one-sided, “ex-parte” hearing, and the defendant always has the option to request a hearing to give his or her side of the story, as Amsden did.
Earlier this year Sharon and Jeff Pichotta, the former operators of Tucson Tech, each filed a petition for an injunction against harassment — a type of restraining order — against Amsden, based on 16 tweets the journalist sent in the last year. At the outset of the hearing, the plaintiffs made a motion to withdraw and dismiss Sharon Pichotta’s restraining order, with attorney Vince Rabago stating it should not have been filed.
Rabago defended the restraining order granted to Jeff Pichotta, arguing Amsden’s tweets made it impossible for Pichotta to move on with his life after the collapse of Tucson Tech and to pursue his coaching career. Rabago said Amsden had a “personal vendetta” against Pichotta and that Amsden had christened himself “guardian of the universe” on behalf of high school graduates who might encounter Pichotta.
In the spotlighted tweets, Amsden linked to his own reporting, and the Arizona Daily Star’s 2016 coverage, of the Pichottas' attempts to launch a “prep school” geared toward overlooked high school graduates looking for a second chance to play sports at a higher level. The news coverage highlighted the athletes’ claims that they were misled about the experience they would have at Tucson Tech. Some said they suffered financially and emotionally, either due to deception or mismanagement of the program.
Amsden also warned high school coaches against supporting Pichotta. In one tweet, he wrote, “Supporting any effort Coach P makes to be around HS athletes is deplorable, & I’ll be happy to call you out for putting kids in harms’ way.” Later, in the same tweet thread, he wrote, “Every year in HS sports brings a new audience, so he’s able to get away with it.”
To constitute harassment under Arizona law, a series of acts must both seriously alarm, annoy or harass the victim and also must serve “no legitimate purpose.”
Rabago argued there was no purpose to the tweets, since the Pichottas have no interest in starting another program like Tucson Tech. He said Amsden was out of line to persist in publicizing their previous program.
“We’re not saying he can’t tweet an article or write an article — if it’s newsworthy, if something has happened,” Rabago said.
But Amsden said he is obligated to inform his audience about the legitimacy of the various programs and opportunities in high school and college sports — a realm in which young athletes are too-often preyed upon by bad actors, he said. Amsden covers high school and collegiate sports throughout Arizona for the Rivals.com sports network, part of Yahoo Sports.
“I don’t see myself as a ‘guardian of the universe,’ “ he told the judge. “I see myself as someone whose job it is to outline the best practices for recruiting for a vulnerable population.”
On the witness stand, Pichotta accused Amsden, as well as the Arizona Daily Star, of inaccurate reporting on Tucson Tech. The controversial athletic program shut down in 2016 after the Star reported it lost its housing for failing to pay rent and lost its contract with a local food bank after selling the food intended for the needy.
“Just because somebody says something in a newspaper doesn’t mean it’s right,” he said. “We’ve all heard about fake news.”
In his response, Amsden emphasized the Pichottas never requested any corrections to his articles about them. The Pichottas also never sought corrections to the Star’s 2016 coverage of Tucson Tech.
Justice of the Peace Bee told the plaintiffs if they want to pursue defamation allegations, the Superior Court is the place to file a lawsuit, rather than seeking a restraining order.
At least two parents of Tucson Tech athletes filed complaints against the Pichottas with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. A civil investigation resulted in an October settlement agreement, which ordered the Pichottas to pay a penalty and stipulated they could not operate another Tucson Tech-like program without state approval. The Pichottas did not admit fault in the settlement agreement.