A Washington State nonprofit sued Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, AT&T, and Comcast on Thursday over Fox News’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiff, the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics (“WASHLITE”), claims the defendants “willfully and maliciously engaged in a campaign of deception and omission regarding the danger of the international proliferation of the novel Coronavirus.”
“While acting in the broad stream of commerce, Defendants knowingly disseminated false, erroneous, and incomplete information, which was reasonably relied upon by the public and which had the effect of delaying and interfering with the implementation of effective mitigation and countermeasures against the virus,” the lawsuit claimed. “Defendants actions created an ongoing uncertain amongst some members of the public as to the dangers of the virus and the rapidity with which the virus spreads.”
Parts of the lawsuit took umbrage with Fox’s description of its programming as “news.”
What is the alleged harm? WASHLITE claims its members have suffered business, property, and health damage, with one member of the group testing positive for COVID-19. The lawsuit seeks a temporary or permanent injunction (which basically would shut down offending broadcasts), “further relief and nominal damages” (nominal damages are usually one or two dollars), a decree that the defendants violated the law, and attorney’s fees.
The lawsuit named three causes of action. The first alleged a violation of Washington’s consumer protection act. The second asked for a declaratory judgement. The third alleged the “tort of outrage” (intentional infliction of emotional distress). The IIED claim was similar to the one filed against Fox News by the family of Seth Rich.
As Law&Crime suggested in an analysis published before the lawsuit was filed, a series of hypothetical claims against Fox News would be difficult to prove against the First Amendment. More on point to the current litigation, however, is a 2007 Washington State case. There, a federal judge examined claims including a consumer protection act complaint against the attorney rating system Avvo. The judge ruled that Avvo’s ratings system was protected by the First Amendment and could not be considered “commerce” under the Washington Consumer Protection Act.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Fox News attorney called the lawsuit “[w]rong on the facts,” “frivolous on the law,” and said the company “will defend vigorously and seek sanctions as appropriate.” That means the plaintiff’s attorneys or perhaps the plaintiffs themselves could be forced to pay Fox News if a judge finds the lawsuit to be intended for an “improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay,” or if the lawsuit was not properly grounded in fact or warranted by law.
Arthur West, a board member of the plaintiff organization, described WASHLITE as an organization devoted to environmental and public interest activism. West bragged to The Daily Beast that he makes “a very good living” suing the government in court for violations of open records and open meetings laws. “I have a collection of European sports cars,” he boasted, along with a house which “overlooks the water” which he purchased using proceeds from his court victories.
You can read the filing in the embed below.
[Image via STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images]
Editor’s note: this piece has been updated to fix an incorrect link.
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