Judge dismisses lieutenant governor’s libel suit against CBS
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A judge on Tuesday tossed out a libel lawsuit filed by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax against a television network he accused of slanted reporting on sexual assault allegations against him.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga in Alexandria dismissed the lawsuit. But he declined to grant CBS’ request that the network be awarded attorney’s fees, disagreeing with the network’s contention that the lawsuit amounted to an abuse of the legal process.
Fairfax sued CBS for $400 million in September, after the network aired exclusive interviews with two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, who accused him of sexual assault more than 15 years ago.
Fairfax says the encounters were consensual and argued in the lawsuit that the network reported the allegations in a way that insinuated his guilt.
CBS lawyers defended the network’s journalism and accused Fairfax of using the lawsuit to attack his accusers.
In a statement Tuesday, Fairfax said he will appeal the dismissal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
“Since these false, fabricated and politically motivated allegations were made more than a year ago at the precise moment it was speculated I would rise to Virginia’s Governorship, I have been denied any meaningful opportunity to establish the truth, clear my name and get justice. I will not stop until I do and can put an end to this political smear campaign.”
The allegations against Fairfax, a Democrat, came in February 2019 when Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam faced calls to resign after a blackface photo emerged on his yearbook page. But the allegations against Fairfax blunted the momentum of those seeking Northam’s resignation. Both Northam and Fairfax have remained in office, as has Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who acknowledged around the same time that he had worn blackface in college.
Trenga, in a 30-page opinion, said Fairfax failed to meet the “actual malice” standard for a libel claim by a public figure. Trenga noted in his ruling that CBS reported Fairfax’s claims of innocence, and that CBS journalists regularly reached out to Fairfax and his spokeswoman to get their side of the story.
Fairfax argued that comments made by CBS News journalists after the women’s interviews with Gayle King implied that the accusations against him were true, including a comment by CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell after Tyson’s interview that it “feels like she was forced.”
Trenga, though, said that in the context of the entire broadcast, he did not view CBS’ reporting as slanted against Fairfax.
“Most basically, none of the CBS This Morning co-hosts state that Fairfax did in fact commit the alleged sexual assaults or that they believed he committed the assaults. In fact, at the conclusion of each interview, King, in studio and surrounded by her co-hosts, promptly announces Fairfax’s assertions of innocence, including that he passed a polygraph exam,” Trenga wrote.
But Trenga disagreed with CBS’ contention that Fairfax’s lawsuit was an abuse of the legal process and an attempt to silence his accusers, and that he should be required to pay CBS’ legal fees as punishment. Instead, Trenga concluded that Fairfax’s motives for suing appeared to be legitimate: ’“namely, a public vindication and restoration of his reputation.”
Fairfax has said he felt compelled to file suit try to clear his name after the allegations were made. He said he has taken a lie-detector test and begged for police to investigate to no avail. The libel lawsuit, he said, provided the next best way to prove his innocence.