Omaha referee John Higgins files lawsuit against Kentucky radio station he claims encouraged fan threats

Omaha referee John Higgins files lawsuit against Kentucky radio station he claims encouraged fan threats
The Associated Press

John Higgins, an Omaha-based college basketball referee who was harassed by Kentucky fans angry at the way he officiated one of the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament games last season, is suing a Kentucky radio station he contends encouraged the harassment.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in district court in Nebraska lists Higgins as a plaintiff with his wife, Carol Higgins, and their roofing business, Weatherguard Inc. Defendants include Kentucky Sports Radio LLC, Matthew H. Jones and Drew Franklin.

The lawsuit alleges an intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, interference with a business relationship or expectancy, and civil conspiracy.

Higgins, who has served as an NCAA referee for nearly 30 years, officiated an Elite Eight game in March that Kentucky lost to North Carolina. Afterward, Kentucky coach John Calipari criticized the officiating during his postgame press conference, and fans quickly began to share Higgins’ personal information online.

Jones hosts a two-hour call-in show on Kentucky Sports Radio — which can be heard worldwide through various platforms — and maintains a blog on the station’s website, on which Franklin is also a contributor. Immediately after the game, Jones also criticized Higgins’ officiating, and over the next couple of days, he is alleged to have encouraged fans’ behavior toward the referee.

“A critique or two, with lively language, is to be expected,” the lawsuit states. “Death threats and defamatory messages in the thousands that lead to a serious disruption in a referee’s business are not.”

In the days following the game, the lawsuit states, Weatherguard — located in Sarpy County — received over 3,000 phone calls, approximately 75 percent of those coming from Kentucky area codes. The calls persisted for up to two weeks. Angry fans also left negative reviews of Weatherguard on Google, decreasing the business’ star rating from 4.8 to 1.2. Hundreds of negative comments were also left on the company’s Facebook page, which had to be taken down as a result.

Threats of physical harm were also made to Higgins, his family and his business. There were more than 800 threatening messages left on the company voicemail and 30 left on Higgins’ home phone line. An investigator deemed 12 of those threats credible enough to pursue as a criminal investigation, according to the lawsuit.

Though Jones regularly claimed on his radio show he did not believe the threats to be appropriate, he often read the comments and Weatherguard’s web address on air, effectively encouraging the behavior, the lawsuit claims.

“While Mr. Jones claimed he did not ‘advocate’ such activity,” the lawsuit states, “any fan who wrote such a comment, outrageous enough, would be rewarded by having the comment read on the KSR Show with laughter and admiration.”

The lawsuit states this behavior resulted in the plaintiffs suffering damages to be determined at trial, “but that in any event exceed $75,000.” The plaintiffs request the jury trial take place in Omaha.