Fox News suffered a significant setback on Friday in its defense of a $1.6 billion libel lawsuit alleging it lied about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
A Delaware Superior Court judge said the case, brought by Dominion Voting Systems, was strong enough to conclude that Fox hosts and guests had repeatedly made false claims about Dominion machines and their alleged role in a fictitious plot to election of President Donald J. Trump.
“The evidence developed in this civil suit,” Judge Eric M. Davis wroteshows that it is “CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements regarding Dominion regarding the 2020 election are true.”
Judge Davis said the case would go to trial so that a jury could consider whether Fox was spreading false claims about Dominion when he knew they were untrue, and to determine any punitive damages. The trial is expected to begin on April 17.
But he dismissed much of the core of Fox’s defense: that the First Amendment protected statements made on-air alleging that the election was somehow stolen. Fox has argued that it merely reported voter fraud allegations as inherently newsworthy and that any statements made by its hosts about alleged fraud fell under the Constitution as opinion.
“It seems oxymoronic to call the statements ‘opinions’ while at the same time claiming that the statements are newsworthy allegations and/or substantially accurate records of official proceedings,” Judge Davis said.
For example, on a November 24, 2020 broadcast of “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” Mr. Dobbs said, “I think a lot of Americans haven’t thought about electoral fraud that would be perpetrated through electronic voting; that is, these machines, these electronic voting companies , including Dominion, prominently Dominion, at least in the suspicion of many Americans.
The judge said that statement was a fact, rather than an opinion, about Dominion.
Under the defamation law, Dominion must prove that Fox either knowingly spread false information or did so with a reckless disregard for the truth, meaning it had reason to believe that the information it broadcast was false.
Numerous legal experts have said Dominion provided ample evidence that Fox hosts and producers knew what they were doing.
RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor and First Amendment scholar at the University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law, said the judge indicated he disagreed with many of Fox’s arguments.
“The case will go to the jury with some of the key elements already decided in favor of Dominion,” said Ms. Anderson Jones.
Dominion said in a statement: “We welcome the court’s thorough ruling that soundly rejects all of Fox’s arguments and defenses and legally establishes that their statements about Dominion are false. We look forward to the trial.”
A spokeswoman for Fox said the case “is and always will be about the protection of the media’s absolute right to cover the news” by the First Amendment.
“Fox will continue to vigorously advocate for the rights of free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of this process,” she added.
Both parties had asked the judge for a preliminary injunction, meaning they would rule in their favor on the merits of the evidence presented by both sides to date, including at a hearing last week. Dominion has argued that texts and emails between Fox executives and hosts proved that many knew the claims were false, but still put them on the air.
Fox has accused Dominion of picking evidence and argued that the First Amendment protected it because it reported on newsworthy allegations.
In Friday’s decision, Judge Davis said damages, if awarded to Dominion, would be calculated by the jury. Fox lawyers pushed back Dominion’s claim for $1.6 billion in previous hearings, arguing that the company had exaggerated its valuation and failed to demonstrate that it suffered any loss of business.
Fox has argued that Fox Corp, Fox News’ parent company, was not involved in the broadcast of the alleged defamatory statements. In the decision, the judge left that question to a jury.
The case is the most high-profile case to date to test whether allies of former President Donald J. Trump would be held responsible for spreading untruths about the 2020 election. The prosecutions of those who were in the Capitol on January 6, 2021 , were mainly aimed at petty criminals and petty agitators.
Important revelations are buried in the court files. Hundreds of pages of internal emails and messages in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, some redacted, showed that many Fox executives and hosts disbelieved the false voter fraud claims they aired and made derogatory comments about Mr. Trump and its legal advisers.
Tucker Carlson, the popular prime-time host, described Mr. Trump as “a demonic force, a destroyer” in a text with his producer. In a separate message to presenter Laura Ingraham, Mr. Carlson that Sidney Powell, attorney for Mr. Trump lied about the fraud claims, but “our viewers are good people and they believe it.”
The wealth of messages also revealed the panic within Fox News in the weeks following the election. Leaders including Suzanne Scott, the network’s chief executive, and Rupert Murdoch, the parent company’s chairman, were concerned about outraged viewers who felt the network had betrayed Mr. Trump when it rightly called Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr. .
While some of those viewers left for more right-wing channels such as Newsmax in the days after the election, Ms Scott told Mr Murdoch in an email that she intended “to turn around but to keep the audience that loves us and trusts us”. She added: “We need to make sure they know we are not abandoning them and are still champions for them.”
Mr Murdoch recognized in his statement that some Fox News hosts had “endorsed” the false fraud claims. He added that he “would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it afterwards.”
The lawsuit has also recently had a complicating factor: A former Fox News producer filed her own lawsuit against the company this month, alleging that the network’s attorneys forced her to give misleading testimony in the Dominion case. Fox News fired the producer, Abby Grossberg, who worked for the host Maria Bartiromo and Mr. Carlson, after she filed the complaints.
On Monday, Ms. Grossberg’s lawyers filed her errata sheet, which witnesses use to correct errors in their statements. She revised her comments by saying she didn’t trust the producers at Fox she worked with because they were “activists, not journalists, imposing their political agendas on programming.”
Judge Davis’ ruling sets the stage for one of the most sweeping media trials in recent history, with the possibility that Fox executives and hosts could be called to testify in person.
In several recent hearings, the judge indicated he was losing patience with Fox’s attorneys and their objections to Dominion’s attempts to bring evidence to the file. And he said Friday that he believed Dominion was right when he claimed Fox failed to “report in good faith and disinterestedly.”