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Judge Throws Out Ex-Playboy Playmate’s Lawsuit Against Fox News: Tucker Carlson Didn’t Defame Karen McDougal

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses 'Populism and the Right' during the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. Carlson talked about a large variety of topics including dropping testosterone levels, increasing rates of suicide, unemployment, drug addiction and social hierarchy at the summit, which had the theme 'The Case for the American Experiment.'

A federal judge dismissed former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal’s lawsuit against Fox News. The lawsuit alleged that on-air comments from host Tucker Carlson, such as “Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion,” were defamatory. The judge said Carlson’s statement amounted to rhetorical hyperbole and “opinion commentary intended to frame a political debate.”

U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, a Trump appointee, said in an order summarized on the Southern District of New York docket that McDougal’s amended complaint offered “only conclusory allegations about Mr. Carlson’s alleged biases and otherwise pursues theories that are pre-empted by long-standing precedent.” From the docket:

OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS re: MOTION to Dismiss the Amended Complaint (DE-27) filed by Fox News Network, LLC. Plaintiff Karen McDougal claims to have been defamed by accusations of “extortion” leveled at her by Tucker Carlson on Defendant Fox News Network’s broadcast. However, as described herein, Ms. McDougal has not offered a plausible interpretation that the statements Mr. Carlson made, when read in context, are statements of fact. The Court concludes that the statements are rhetorical hyperbole and opinion commentary intended to frame a political debate, and, as such, are not actionable as defamation. In addition, as a public figure, Ms. McDougal must raise a plausible inference of actual malice to sustain her defamation claim. She has failed to do so. The Amended Complaint offers only conclusory allegations about Mr. Carlson’s alleged biases and otherwise pursues theories that are pre-empted by long-standing precedent. For these reasons, Defendant Fox News’s Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint [ECF #28] is GRANTED. The Clerk of Court respectfully is requested to close the case. (Signed by Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil on 9/23/2020) (mro) Transmission to Orders and Judgments Clerk for processing. (Entered: 09/24/2020)

Fox News previously told Law&Crime that the McDougal lawsuit was “meritless” and that it would vigorously defend Carlson in court. On Thursday, a Fox News spokesperson told Law&Crime that McDougal tried and failed to “silence” Tucker Carlson.

“Karen McDougal’s lawsuit attempted to silence spirited opinion commentary on matters of public concern. The court today held that the First Amendment plainly prohibits such efforts to stifle free speech,” the statement said. “The decision is a victory not just for FOX News Media, but for all defenders of the First Amendment.”

As part of the Southern District of New York investigation that ended with Michael Cohen behind bars, the National Enquirer’s parent company American Media Inc. (AMI) admitted to “catching and killing” (paying $150,000 for and burying) McDougal’s story of an alleged affair with President Donald Trump to “prevent it from influencing” the 2016 election.

The Carlson comments date back to Dec. 10, 2018. They were directed at both McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels, who also said she had an affair with Trump.

“Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money,” Carlson said. “Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion. Yet for whatever reason, Trump caves to it, and he directs Michael Cohen to pay the ransom. Now, more than two years later, Trump is a felon for doing this. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.”

A lawyer for McDougal argued in court documents that Carlson defamed his client when he accused her of orchestrating a shakedown by “approach[ing] Donald Trump and threaten[ing] to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money.” The attorney argued that Trump “never once claimed that he was extorted.”

Judge Vyskocil ruled that McDougal did not offer a “plausible” argument that Carlson’s words were “statements of fact”:

Plaintiff Karen McDougal claims to have been defamed by accusations of “extortion” leveled at her by Tucker Carlson on Defendant Fox News Network’s broadcast. However, as described herein, Ms. McDougal has not offered a plausible interpretation that the statements Mr. Carlson made, when read in context, are statements of fact. The Court concludes that the statements are rhetorical hyperbole and opinion commentary intended to frame a political debate, and, as such, are not actionable as defamation. In addition, as a public figure, Ms. McDougal must raise a plausible inference of actual malice to sustain her defamation claim. She has failed to do so. The Amended Complaint offers only conclusory allegations about Mr. Carlson’s alleged biases and otherwise pursues theories that are pre-empted by long-standing precedent. For these reasons, Defendant Fox News’s Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint [ECF #28] is GRANTED.

Read the opinion and order below:

Judge Dismisses Karen McDougal Lawsuit Against Fox News by Law&Crime on Scribd

 

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.