Delaware Court Says Dominion Voting Systems Can Continue Suing Fox News For $1.6 Billion In Defamation
from the hope-the-charade-was-worth-it,-Fox dept
Another one of Dominion Voting Systems’ many, many lawsuits against Trump loyalists will be allowed to continue. (For a pretty comprehensive rundown of Dominion’s election-related defamation lawsuits, check out these comments by Techdirt reader RP.)
This particular lawsuit was filed in Delaware state court against Fox News Corporation, alleging that many of its hosts and commentators lied about Dominion’s voting machines and its owners during coverage following Donald Trump’s election loss. These false claims continued to be made by Fox News personalities like Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo and amplified by guest commentators (who are also being sued by Dominion elsewhere) like former Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani.
Fox moved to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming there was no defamation here, just a lot of protected speech. Fox’s defense is that repeated lies by hosts and guests were heated hyperbole and statements of opinion rather than defamation. Also, Fox contends it can’t be held responsible for statements made by its employees. From the decision [PDF]:
Fox argues that multiple constitutional doctrines protect Fox’s alleged defamatory speech. First, Fox contends that truthfully reporting newsworthy allegations made by a sitting president and his legal team on matters of public concern is not actionable. Second, Fox claims that the media is completely protected when reporting and commenting about allegations made in government proceedings. Third, Fox asserts that opinion and hyperbolic rhetoric about newsworthy allegations are constitutionally protected. Finally, Fox claims that none of the challenged individual statements identifies actionable defamation against Fox.
But, as the Delaware Superior Court points out in its refusal to toss the case, Fox News and its hosts were provided facts that contradicted on-air statements. And yet these statements continued unaltered, with Fox News playing up the “stolen election” angle to drive viewers to its broadcasts.
It’s that refusal to correct on-air statements that may end up costing Fox News a whole lot of money. Dominion is seeking $1.6 billion, citing the amount of money it has spent fighting months of false claims about its software and hardware, as well as contracts dropped by state officials who bought into the “stolen election” narrative.
The judge says repeating false claims when you have facts in hand can be defamatory. That’s called “actual malice” and it’s definitely actionable. And the reporting on the election and Dominion Voting Systems was far from neutral, undermining Fox’s “neutral reportage” defense.
The Court, reviewing the Complaint’s allegations, notes that it is reasonably conceivable that Fox’s reporting was inaccurate. As alleged, Dominion attempted to factually address Fox’s election fraud allegations. After Fox began connecting Dominion to election fraud claims, Dominion sent Fox executives and television anchors its “SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT” emails. Dominion’s emails, which contained analysis from election and related experts, tended to disprove the election fraud claims. Nevertheless, Fox and its news personnel continued to report Dominion purported connection to the election fraud claims without also reporting on Dominion’s emails. When Fox guests spread or reiterated disinformation about Dominion, Fox did not use the information Dominion provided to correct its guests or to reorient its viewers. Instead, Fox and its personnel pressed their view that considerable evidence connected Dominion to an illegal election fraud conspiracy.
In addition, the Court notes that it is reasonably conceivable that Fox was not dispassionate. Given that Fox apparently refused to report contrary evidence, including evidence from the Department of Justice, the Complaint’s allegations support the reasonable inference that Fox intended to keep Dominion’s side of the story out of the narrative. Moreover, the Complaint alleges numerous instances in which Fox personnel did not merely ask questions and parrot responses but, rather, endorsed or suggested answers. Fox therefore may have failed to report the issue truthfully or dispassionately by skewing questioning and approving responses in a way that fit or promoted a narrative in which Dominion committed election fraud.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the neutral reportage defense is completely undercut. But at this point — with Fox having yet to actually respond to the allegations in Dominion’s complaint — Fox can’t make this lawsuit disappear.
First, Fox argues it was not required to “defend” Dominion from Fox’s guest by reporting Dominion’s refutations. Still, Fox’s possession of evidence demonstrating the election fraud claims were untrue supports the reasonable inference that Fox made or published statements knowing they were false or with a reckless disregard for the truth. Fox may not ordinarily have a duty to defend the targets of allegations on which it is reporting; however, Fox must report on those allegations accurately and dispassionately under the neutral reportage defense. Second, Fox argues there are instances in which Fox was critical of the allegations against Dominion and in which Fox reported Dominion’s refutations. Fox may end up being right. This is the pleadings stage though and, at this stage, this argument raises factual issues the Court must resolve in Dominion’s favor. Fox will have the ability to develop this argument during discovery as the case proceeds.
The “fair reporting” privilege also does not apply. This covers “substantially true” coverage of court proceedings. Hardly anything asserted by Dominion to be defamatory fits this description.
The Court recognizes that most of the alleged statements were made before a lawsuit had been filed (e.g., the Powell allegations). As a result, most of the alleged statements, even if true, were not “of” a judicial proceeding. That alone is enough to preclude the fair report privilege. Fox counters with decisions that, according to Fox, hold the fair report privilege applies to “anticipated” or “forthcoming” lawsuits as well as pending proceedings. To the extent Fox argues its personnel were referring to pending election fraud cases filed throughout the nation, and investigations initiated by the federal government, the Complaint alleges facts that Fox’s personnel did not tailor their comments to the allegations in those proceedings. By consequence, the Court finds there is ambiguity, from the viewer’s perspective, as to whether Fox was reporting on those proceedings.
Hyperbole and opinion? Maybe that defense will work for Fox News once discovery is underway and all the facts can be closely examined. But for now, the court finds too many of the statements made by Fox News hosts possibly actionable to toss out the entire suit.
[T]he Court finds it is reasonably conceivable that Fox and its personnel broadcasted mixed opinions that were based on either false or incomplete facts unknown to the reasonable viewer. Many of Fox’s reporters made broad election fraud statements that did not disclose their sources clearly, or clearly connect their statements to the election fraud litigations. Although Fox classifies its reporters’ remarks as “commentary” that used “loose and hyperbolic rhetoric” for entertainment value, even loose and hyperbolic language can be actionable if it rests on false statements of fact undisclosed to viewers. Accordingly, the Complaint supports the reasonable inference that Fox made unprotected statements of fact that defamed Dominion.
It’s those “false statements of facts” that bring in the “actual malice” component of defamation law. The court says Dominion has alleged enough to move forward. Fox’s defense that some of its commentators and hosts contradicted claims of election fraud — perhaps assuming this would mean Fox News as a whole can’t be sued — works against it.
In addition, the Complaint alleges that several of Fox’s personnel openly disclaimed the fraud claims as false. Yet, certain Fox personnel (e.g., Mr. Dobbs) continued to push the fraud claims. The nearby presence of dissenting colleagues thus further suggests Fox, through personnel like Mr. Dobbs, was knowing or reckless in reporting the claims.
That’s not to say this won’t ultimately result in Fox News escaping this lawsuit. But from what the judge has seen so far, Fox definitely has an uphill battle. Fox execs should have known they were playing with litigation fire by allowing their hosts to traffic in false claims about Dominion voting machines — especially after the network was given evidence that directly contradicted these claims. But the network apparently felt the “stolen election” angle was for more profitable and more likely to retain viewers unwilling to believe their president was no longer their president.
As multiple lawsuits continue to work their way through the court system, high-profile Trump acolytes are going to discover that their election conspiracy theories are going to cost them far more than their reputations.