April 7, 2009

First Circuit brings home the bacon for Fox media defendants

In Levesque v. Doocy (No. 08-1814) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit last month affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in behalf of the media defendants--Fox News Network and two individual anchors for the Fox & Friends program--in a defamation and false light case brought by a superintendent of schools in Maine.

In short, the case arose from an April 2007 incident at a Maine middle school, where a student placed a bag of ham on a cafeteria table where Somali Muslim students were sitting. A producer for Fox & Friends subsequently picked up an online story (published via Associated Content) about the incident and the reaction by school officials. That story included certain mischaracterizations and humorous references, which made it through the Fox producer's fact-checking process and found their way onto the air.

In affirming the district court decision, the court agreed with the district court's conclusion that even as to three statements (including the erroneous attribution to the plaintiff of a comment that "ham is not a toy") that were "materially false, reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning, and highly offensive for purposes of the false light claim," the plaintiff (a public official) failed to produce evidence that the defendants had acted with "constitutional malice" when making the statements.

The district court had determined that other statements were protected on multiple grounds, such as being substantially true or constituting protected rhetorical hyperbole.

The opinion by the First Circuit provides a good discussion of the Times v. Sullivan actual malice standard that applies to defamation claims by a public official.

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