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Somerville orthodontist and landlord sues Tufts student journalists over story on renters’ protest

Two Tufts University student journalists, Emily Thompson and Alexander Janoff are being sued by a local landlord over newspaper coverage of a protest against him.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

A Somerville orthodontist and landlord with a litigious past is suing two Tufts University student journalists over coverage of a renters’ protest outside his office, claiming a story in the college newspaper defamed him and caused him emotional harm by suggesting he had lied.

At issue in the lawsuit, filed in Middlesex Superior Court, is the Tufts Daily’s coverage of a Feb. 3 demonstration in front of Mouhab Rizkallah’s business, The Braces Place. Protestors called for Rizkallah to withdraw his lawsuit against a former tenant that demands $28,875 in unpaid rent.

Rizkallah’s lawsuit against the student journalists says the newspaper misquoted him when it said he didn’t recognize any of the 15 or 20 protesters as tenants of his LaCourt Realty property, and it contained “several inaccuracies,” and “falsely suggested that [he] was lying.” He maintains he recognized one tenant.

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The 36-page lawsuit names editor in chief Alex Janoff and deputy news editor Emily Thompson, who wrote the article in question. The suit demands a jury trial and seeks $50,000 for “emotional distress damages.”

Rizkallah’s lawyer, Emilie L. Grossman, said a simple correction could make the whole thing go away.

“Dr. Rizkallah brought this lawsuit to hold a journalist accountable for misrepresenting key information that misled the public,” Grossman wrote in an e-mail. “Despite admitting that the story was incomplete, the newspaper’s editor chose not to correct the story. If the newspaper corrects its story, Dr. Rizkallah will drop the matter. It should be that simple.”

The newspaper and its editors say the article contained no errors and required no correction. “I stand by our reporting 100 percent,” Janoff said. “I take it very seriously.”

Evan Fray-Witzer, the defense lawyer representing the students through the Student Press Law Center, said it was a petty lawsuit designed to bully young journalists, and it wouldn’t hold up in court.

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“In almost 30 years of practice, I don’t think I’ve seen a complaint quite as frivolous as this one,” Fray-Witzer said. “There’s really nothing that has damaged his reputation in any way from the article that they wrote.”

Fray-Witzer added: “I really think at every step this complaint fails. There’s no false statement, there isn’t anything that holds him up to ridicule in the community, he can’t actually hope to show actual malice ... and there’s no damages.”

Rizkallah, of Winchester, owns and operates six orthodontic practices in Boston, Framingham, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, and Somerville. In January 2021, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit accusing him of defrauding MassHealth, the state Medicaid program, by intentionally leaving children’s braces on for two to three years longer than necessary and for wrongfully charging MassHealth patients for missed or cancelled appointments.

Healey’s office on Wednesday declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

In court documents filed March 3, Rizkallah claims that Healey’s lawsuit is in retaliation for three discrimination lawsuits he has brought against MassHealth in the last decade and the AG’s claims were unproven, false, and defamatory.

The latest litigation involving the college students resulted from a Tufts Daily article headlined “Tenants Union protests LaCourt Realty, claims exploitation, negligence.” It described the demonstration, organized by a group called the LaCourt Tenants Union, marching from the Davis Square MBTA stop to The Braces Place on College Avenue and calling for Rizkallah to withdraw his suit against the former tenant.

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“Rizkallah repeatedly claimed the people protesting were members of the Greater Boston Tenants Union and not LaCourt tenants,” the article said.

Thompson, who wrote the article, conducted her interview with Rizkallah via e-mail, with subsequent communications by text message. The e-mails and texts are included in court documents filed March 29.

“We can very clearly source everything that I wrote in the article,” said Thompson, a sophomore. “Even a quick glance at the messages exchanged between Mr. Rizkallah and me confirms that my piece is fully accurate.”

Both students said they’re rattled by the lawsuit — amid their hectic schedules dominated by full-time coursework and daily journalism deadlines.

“It’s definitely frustrating the way this has all played out,” Janoff, a junior, said Wednesday.

Thompson said the experience has been overwhelming.

“I think any person would see their name on a complaint and be a little bit shaken, but things have to get done, there are classes to go to.”

And there are more articles to write, Thompson and Janoff said.

“We’re keeping this story up to date. As things come in, we’re going to continue to report on this issue,” Janoff said.

Their lawyer, Fray-Witzer, praised the students.

“I don’t like bullies, and I don’t like people who think suing students who are writing for their school paper is a good idea,” Fray-Witzer said.

“Alex and Emily have handled this with a professionalism and grace that is way beyond their years,” he added. “I cannot imagine being a college student and having to be personally named in a litigation like this.”

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Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.