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Basketball ref sues Kentucky media company over harassment

FILE - In this March 26, 2017, file photo, Kentucky head coach John Calipari argues a call with referee John Higgins in the first half of the South Regional final game against North Carolina in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Memphis, Tenn. Higgins has filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in federal court against a Kentucky media company after he and family members were harassed following an NCAA Tournament game he worked in March. The harassment came after Higgins worked Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina in a regional final. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A college basketball referee filed a federal lawsuit against a Kentucky media company on Tuesday, accusing it of creating conditions that led to the harassment of him and his family after he worked an NCAA Tournament game between Kentucky and North Carolina in March.

In his suit, John Higgins blamed Kentucky Sports Radio for helping incite death threats that frightened him and his family and defamatory messages on social media and in phone messages that disrupted his roofing business in suburban Omaha. The harassment came after Higgins worked Kentucky's loss to the eventual champion Tar Heels in a regional final.

Kentucky coach John Calipari was critical of the officiating in his postgame comments, a theme that was picked up on by commentators for Kentucky Sports Radio after the game.

The suit alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, tortious interference with a business and civil conspiracy. Higgins, who is seeking at least $75,000, declined comment.

Higgins, his wife Carol and his business, Weatherguard Inc., are listed as plaintiffs. Kentucky Sports Radio and two of its operators, Matthew Jones and Drew Franklin, are listed as defendants.

In a tweet and posting on the KSR website, Jones said, "The Higgins lawsuit against KSR is frivolous and without any legal merit whatsoever. We will defend it and expect a favorable result quickly."

A video showing contact information for Higgins and posted on the KSR website was partly responsible for sparking the harassment, the suit said.

"After defendants' publication of Mr. Higgins' business and contact information, as well as their encouragement and enticement to thousands of people to utilize the contact information, Weatherguard received over 3,000 phone calls during the two days after the game, of which approximately 75 percent were from Kentucky area codes," the suit said.

Higgins' business also received a flood of bogus negative online reviews, causing his Google rating to plummet. Higgins' website got more than 28,000 hits in the days after the game, and he was forced to take the company's Facebook page down.

A sheriff's investigator in Sarpy County, where Higgins' business is located, said in April that he had identified 450 phone calls or messages and another 200-300 messages on social media or in emails that were "of a threatening nature." The sheriff's department provided extra patrols around Higgins' office, and Omaha police did the same near Higgins' residence.

The lawsuit said Higgins and his family had a bodyguard with them when Higgins was in Phoenix for the Final Four.

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