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Fox News Hits Back at Activist Group That Sued Over Coronavirus Coverage: ‘Can’t Silence Us with a Lawsuit’

Fox News on Tuesday filed court papers accusing a Washington State activist group of launching a “frontal assault on the freedom of speech” that “flagrantly violates the First Amendment and fails to state a claim.”

The documents are Fox’s official response to a lawsuit filed by the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics, also known as WASHLITE, which complained that Fox’s coverage of the novel coronavirus violated Washington’s consumer protection laws and legally resulted in an intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Fox called the group’s lawsuit “frivolous because the statements at issue are core political speech on matters of public concern.”

“The First Amendment does not permit censoring this type of speech based on the theory that it is ‘false’ or ‘outrageous,’” the documents say. “Nor does the law of the State of Washington.”

“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,” the documents argue.

In a press release, Fox characterized the lawsuit as an attempt by the group “to impose a judicial gag order” on its coverage.

“It’s Constitutional Law 101: the First Amendment protects our right to speak openly and freely on matters of public concern,” said Fox News Media General Counsel and Executive Vice President Lily Fu Claffee. “If WASHLITE doesn’t like what we said, it can criticize us, but it can’t silence us with a lawsuit.”

The 76-page response includes a 61-page appendix which contains transcripts of Fox reports which expose what Fox calls “inaccuracies” with the activist group’s lawsuit. The “transcripts clearly show[] Fox News Channel hosts warning about the severity of the virus,” Fox noted in a press release. The exhibits “also point[] out commentary downplaying the outbreak from multiple media outlets, including CNN and the New York Times,” Fox noted. WASHLITE has not sued CNN or the New York Times.

The bottom line is that Fox’s defense of the First Amendment covers all of those publications — in a roundabout way.

Fox News filed its response the same day as another development in the case:  the attorney who was representing WASHLITE, Elizabeth Hallock, suddenly withdrew as counsel. Separate court documents reviewed by Law&Crime do not give an explicit reason for Hallock’s withdrawal, though they do list Catherine C. Clark as WASHLITE’s new attorney. Hallock, whose law firm is in Yakima, is also running for governor of Washington on the Green Party ticket. Clark’s law firm lists a Seattle address. The lawsuit is in King County, Wash., which surrounds Seattle. Yakima is more than two hours away. It is likely that WASHLITE merely sought local counsel in the jurisdiction where the suit was being heard.

Law&Crime previously assessed that any lawsuit complaining about coronavirus coverage would be difficult to win. WASHLITE moved recently to remove the judge assigned to the case — before Fox News even filed its response.

You can read the Fox News response to the lawsuit below:

Fox News Response to WASHLITE by Law&Crime on Scribd

[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

Editor’s note:  this piece has been updated to reflect Hallock’s withdrawal.

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University.  He is the anchor and executive producer of Law&Crime Daily on the Law&Crime Network.  The broadcast is a recap of the day's most compelling trials and court proceedings.  He also serves as an editor for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only.  You should not rely on it for legal advice.  Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.  This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.  Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.