Fox News suffered a significant setback Friday in its defense against a $1.6 billion libel lawsuit that claims it lied about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
A judge at the Delaware Superior Court said the case, brought by Dominion Voting Systems, was strong enough to conclude that Fox hosts and guests had repeatedly made false claims about Dominion machines and their role in a fictitious plot to steal the election from President Donald J. .Trump.
“Evidence developed in this civil process,” Judge Eric M. Davis wroteindicating that it “is CRYSTAL it is clear that none of the statements relating to the Dominion regarding the 2020 elections are correct.”
Judge Davis said the case will proceed to trial, for a jury to consider whether Fox spread false claims about Dominion while knowing they were untrue, and to determine any damages. The trial is expected to begin April 17.
But he dismissed a large part of Fox's defense: that the First Amendment protected statements made on air suggesting that the election had somehow been stolen. Fox maintains that it is simply reporting alleged voter fraud as inherently newsworthy and that any statements made by the host about alleged fraud are covered under the Constitution as an opinion.
“It seems oxymoronic to call a statement an ‘opinion' while also asserting that it is a newsworthy allegation and/or a substantially accurate report of official proceedings,” Judge Davis said.
For example, on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” broadcast on November 24, 2020, Mr. Dobbs said: “I don't think many Americans think of election fraud going to be done through electronic voting; that is, these machines, these electronic voting companies include Dominion, especially Dominion, at least to the suspicion of many Americans.”
The judge said the statement established facts, not opinions, about Dominion.
Under defamation laws, Dominion must prove that Fox knowingly disseminated false information or did so with reckless disregard for the truth, meaning that Fox has reason to believe the information it broadcast is false.
Many legal experts say that Dominion has provided ample evidence that Fox's hosts and producers knew what they were doing.
RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor and First Amendment scholar at the University of Utah's SJ Quinney College of Law, said the judge had signaled he disagreed with many of Fox's arguments.
“This case will go to a grand jury with a few key elements that have been decided in favor of Dominion,” said Ms. AndersonJones.
Dominion, in a statement, said: “We are grateful to the court's overall ruling that categorically rejected all of Fox's arguments and defense, and found legally to have their statements about Dominion false. We are looking forward to going to court.”
A Fox spokesperson said the case “is and has always been about the First Amendment protection of the media's inalienable right to cover news.”
“Fox will continue to advocate for the right to free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of this process,” he added.
Both sides have asked judges to deliver brief judgments, meaning to rule in their favor based on the evidence each side has produced so far, including at last week's pretrial hearing. Dominion argued that the texts and emails between Fox executives and the show's hosts proved that many knew the claims were false but remained on the air.
Fox accused Dominion of taking evidence and argued that the First Amendment protected him from reporting newsworthy allegations.
In Friday's decision, Judge Davis said damages, if awarded to Dominion, would be calculated by a jury. Lawyers for Fox dismissed Dominion's claims for $1.6 billion in previous hearings, arguing that the company had overstated its judgment and failed to demonstrate a business loss.
Fox maintains that Fox Corp., the parent company of Fox News, was not involved in broadcasting the allegedly defamatory statements. In his decision, the judge left the question to the jury.
The case is the highest profile so far to test whether former President Donald J. Trump's allies will be held accountable for spreading lies about the 2020 election. The prosecution against those in the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was largely focused on low-level criminals and agitators. .
Major revelations have been buried in the lawsuit filing. Hundreds of pages of emails and internal messages in the weeks surrounding the 2020 election, some of which were redacted, indicated that many Fox executives and hosts distrusted the false claims of voter fraud they were broadcasting and made derogatory comments about Trump and Trump. his legal adviser.
Tucker Carlson, a popular prime-time host, described Trump as a “devilish, destructive force” in a text with his producers. In a separate message to host Laura Ingraham, Mr Carlson said Sidney Powell, Mr Trump's lawyer, lied about the fraudulent claims, but “our audience are good people and they believe him.”
The batch of messages also revealed the panic within Fox News in the weeks following the election. Leaders including Suzanne Scott, the network's chief executive, and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of its parent company, feared the ire of viewers who felt the network had betrayed Mr. Trump when correctly calling Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
As some of those viewers went to more right-wing channels like Newsmax in the days following the election, Ms. Scott told Mr. Murdoch via email that he intends to “play but maintain an audience that loves us and believes in us”. He added: “We need to make sure they know we're not ignoring them and still being champions for them.”
Mr. Murdoch acknowledged in his statement that several Fox News hosts had “supported” the false fraud claims. He added that he “want us to be even more forceful in bashing him behind his back.”
The lawsuit also has a recent complicating factor: A former Fox News producer filed his own lawsuit against the company this month, claiming that the network's lawyers coerced him into giving misleading testimony in the Dominion case. Fox News fired producer Abby Grossberg, who worked for hosts Maria Bartiromo and Mr. Carlson, after she filed a complaint.
On Monday, Ms. Grossberg submitted his errata sheet, which witnesses used to correct errors in their depositions. He revised his comments to say he did not trust the producers at Fox where he worked because they were “activists, not journalists, and imposed their political agenda on programming.”
Judge Davis' ruling sets the stage for one of the most important media trials in recent history, with the possibility that Fox executives and hosts could be called to testify in person.
In several recent hearings, the judge indicated he was losing patience with Fox's attorneys and their objections to Dominion's attempts to enter evidence on record. And he said Friday that he believed Dominion was right in suggesting that Fox was not “doing good faith, selfless reporting.”