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Lawsuits & Litigation

Fox News Asks Judge to Toss Coronavirus Misinformation Lawsuit

— April 16, 2020

A Washington nonprofit has accused Fox News of essentially having spread propaganda calling coronavirus as a Democratic hoax.

Fox News wants a Washington state judge to toss a lawsuit alleging the network endangered public health by spreading misinformation about novel coronavirus.

In their filing, Fox vigorously denied that its talk-show hosts had misrepresented the pandemic. Furthermore, the media outlet claimed statements made by hosts Sean Hannity and Trish Regan were protected by the First Amendment.

“The claims here are frivolous because the statements at issue are core political speech on matters of public concern,” Fox wrote in its brief, filed Tuesday in King County, Washington. “The First Amendment does not permit censoring this type of speech based on the theory that it is ‘false’ or ‘outrageous.’ Neither does the law of the State of Washington.”

As LegalReader reported earlier this month, Fox’s response relates to a lawsuit filed by the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics, also known as WASHLITE.

WASHLITE—a little-known organization—told the Times of San Diego that Fox’s initial treatment of coronavirus cannot go unanswered. The group’s director, Arthur West, suggested that Fox’s skepticism of social distancing may have contributed to the spread of the COVID-19 within the state.

“That’s the real evil of this type of programming,” West said. “We believe it delayed and interfered with a prompt and adequate response to this coronavirus pandemic within the state of Washington.”

WASHLITE also alleged that Fox News’ coverage “willfully and maliciously” spread misinformation to viewers between mid-February and mid-March. Trish Regan, for instance, had characterized legislators’ concern about coronavirus as a political ploy intended to “demonize” President Donald Trump.

Interestingly, once coronavirus began its rapid spread across the United States, Regan’s position was terminated—leading some speculators to believe that Fox is attempting to shield itself from further litigation.

Catherine Clark, WASHLITE’s new legal counsel, told The Hill that—no matter Fox’s response—their coverage raises real questions about what kind of speech is appropriate amidst a public health emergency.

“This case asks what are we doing to each other as a country when we’re under such an order from the government over something so vicious and pernicious at this disease, where nobody has herd immunity,” Clark said.

Other experts, however, told The Hill that even if Fox’s coverage deserves condemnation, WASHLITE’s suit is unlikely to succeed.

“One might argue that some of Fox News hosts’ statements about the coronavirus have been so patently politically driven and irresponsible that viewers should take everything they say with a huge grain of salt,” said Santa Clara University law professor Margaret Russell. “But the First Amendment protects this.”

And that’s exactly what Fox has argued in its filing: that Regan and Hannity’s remarks “are core political speech on a matter of public concern—how dangerous the Coronavirus is, and how society should respond to it.”

“Under the First Amendment and state law, the truth or falsity of this type of speech must be resolved through free and open debate in the marketplace of ideas—not through burdensome litigation seeking to impose legal penalties on political statements that a jury might deem ‘false’ or ‘outrageous,” Fox said.


Fox News asks court to toss lawsuit calling network a public health risk

Fox News fights coronavirus misinformation lawsuit: First Amendment protects “false” speech

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