The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court upheld the dismissal of Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s defamation lawsuit against CBS. The court said that Fairfax had failed to make the case that CBS’ actions were defamatory under heightened requirements of proof for public officials.
“Fairfax’s complaint fails to plausibly allege that CBS made the allegedly defamatory statements with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity, as required to state a claim for defamation of a public official,” the June 23 opinion states.
In 2019, Fairfax sued CBS for defamation after CBS This Morning aired interviews with two women who alleged Fairfax sexually assaulted them in separate incidents in the early and mid 2000s. Fairfax has emphasized that the encounters were consensual. A district court had dismissed Fairfax’s lawsuit but denied CBS‘ motion to make Fairfax pay legal fees. In March, the appeals court heard Fairfax’s appeal. In its opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court upheld both elements of the lower court’s decision.
Fairfax’s lawyer Tillman Breckenridge argued in March, “CBS did not just report the false allegations of rape and sexual assault against Justin Fairfax. It heavily promoted direct interviews resurrecting the false allegations, two months after they were made and then doubled down by endorsing them.”
CBS attorney Jay Brown argued in March that both sides of the story were presented and defined “actual malice,” an extra element of defamation cases that public officials must prove.
Brown said, “It’s the state of mind of persons at CBS responsible for this broadcast. That’s an important point. Whether those individuals responsible for the broadcasts either knew that the women’s allegations were false or went ahead and broadcast the interviews in question while seriously doubting whether they were true.”
In its opinion, the appeals court wrote, “At bottom, the factual allegations in Fairfax’s amended complaint fall considerably short of plausibly alleging that CBS broadcast its April 1 and 2 CBS This Morning programs despite entertaining ‘serious doubts as to the truth’ of those broadcasts. Fairfax vigorously disputes the accusations made by Tyson and Watson, and we express no opinion on the truth or falsity of their claims. But even accepting Fairfax’s version of events, he has alleged nothing to suggest that CBS reported the women’s stories with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity.”
“Because Fairfax has not sufficiently alleged actual malice, he has failed to state a claim for defamation,” the court said.
A spokesperson for Fairfax responded with a lengthy statement, which says in part, “The latest court decision affirms that a news organization can broadcast false and defamatory stories, make statements vouching for the truth of false allegations, have available knowledge of falsity including an exonerating witness and go silent and refuse to update its reporting — for years in this case — when information is presented that the allegations are not true.”
The statement again affirms Fairfax’s innocence, alleging CBS broadcast false claims. The statement continues, “No news organization should be able to present false information that destroys someone’s reputation while remaining willfully blind to a truth that does not fit its narrative.”
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Justin Fairfax” by Justin Fairfax. Background Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Skip Plitt – C’ville Photography. CC BY-SA 3.0.