CBS: Lt. Gov.'s libel lawsuit an effort to silence accusers

Published: Nov. 4, 2019 at 2:14 PM EST
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A broadcaster sued for defamation by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax after airing interviews from two women accusing him of sexual assault said in court papers that his lawsuit is an attempt to silence his accusers.

CBS Broadcasting Inc. asked a federal judge in Alexandria to toss out a $400 million lawsuit filed by Fairfax, characterizing the lawsuit as a "SLAPP" suit, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

In court papers filed Friday, CBS said it accurately reported the accusations against Fairfax by Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson. The CBS lawyers state that Fairfax is using the lawsuit to levy "allegations that disparage the accusers as well as his political opponents."

Fairfax, a Democrat, accused CBS News of reporting the allegations to fit a preconceived narrative that implied his guilt, and ignoring facts that would have led it to doubt the veracity of his accusers' claims. Fairfax says the sexual encounters were consensual.

Fairfax's spokeswoman, Lauren Burke, said Monday in a statement, "It should not go unnoticed that CBS does not claim the allegations by Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson aired on April 1st and 2nd are true."

She also said in the statement that CBS has been unwilling to update its reporting after Fairfax said in July that a third person was in the room during the sexual encounter between Watson and Fairfax who could corroborate Fairfax's claims of innocence.

"Since July 9, when exculpatory evidence regarding Ms. Watson's false allegation were made public, neither her attorney Nancy Erika Smith or Ms. Watson have vouched for the truthfulness of her allegation against Mr. Fairfax. They have gone radio silent," Burke said.

Watson's attorneys referred to an earlier statement they made when Fairfax first filed the defamation claim, saying, "We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court."

The accusations about events that occurred in 2000 and 2004, respectively, surfaced in February; Fairfax appeared poised to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam, who faced calls to resign over a racist yearbook photo depicting one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. In addition, Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted that he had once worn blackface, leaving all three of the state's top office holders, all Democrats, politically damaged. All three have remained in office.

Fairfax has said the accusations were part of a smear campaign by political enemies.

Fairfax has asked for law enforcement agencies to investigate the allegations so he can clear his name. Tyson and Watson have said they favor a public hearing.

In the court papers, CBS said it had an obligation, like other news organizations, to report on the allegations against a public official, and says the lawsuit falls well short of the "actual malice" standard required for a libel or defamation claim against a public figure.

A hearing on CBS' motion to dismiss has been scheduled for Dec. 6.


Sep. 12

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is suing TV network CBS for $400 million after it aired interviews with two women who have accused him of sexual assault.

“This defamation suit arises from intentionally fabricated, false, and politically motivated statements made by Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson alleging that they were sexually assaulted by Justin Fairfax," the lawsuit says. "CBS published, promoted, and amplified these false statements during separate interviews with CBS This Morning’s Gayle King broadcast by CBS to a national audience on April 1 and April 2.”

You can read Fairfax's complaint here.

“We stand by our reporting and we will vigorously defend this lawsuit," CBS News said in a statement Wednesday.

Fairfax, previously considered a rising star of the state Democratic Party, has faced calls to step down from his part-time government job. This summer, he resigned from the law firm where he had worked.

He has denied the allegations for months, which came to light in February a few days after a blackface scandal involving Gov. Ralph Northam.

"The timing and circumstances of these false and salacious allegations demonstrate that it was a political hit job—a deliberate and calculated effort to permanently harm Fairfax's political and professional career and to attempt to prevent him from becoming Governor of Virginia," the lawsuit says.

One of the accusers says Fairfax forced her to “perform oral sex on him."

“What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault,” Dr. Vanessa Tyson said. “Utterly shocked and terrified, I tried to move my head away, but could not because his hand was holding down my neck and he was much stronger than me. As I cried and gagged, Mr. Fairfax forced me to perform oral sex on him.”

Tyson said the assault caused her “both deep humiliation and shame.”

“Reading Dr. Tyson’s account is painful,” Fairfax said in February. "I have never done anything like what she suggests.”

“As I said in my statements this morning, I have nothing to hide. Any review of the circumstances would support my account, because it is the truth. I take this situation very seriously and continue to believe Dr. Tyson should be treated with respect," the statement said. “But, I cannot agree to a description of events that simply is not true."

Following Tyson's account, which she said occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, Meredith Watson came forward, accusing Fairfax of raping her at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 2000.

Fairfax said earlier this summer that he had not yet received a response after asking the District Attorneys in Boston and Durham to investigate the allegations, saying that investigations would "confirm my account because I am telling the truth."

In a statement Wednesday, Fairfax’s attorney said “CBS must be held accountable for its reckless disregard for the truth, knowing failure to follow even rudimentary journalistic standards, and its failure to follow up on leads that would demonstrate the allegations to be false. Fairfax has made numerous direct requests to CBS to update, correct or retract the false stories it hyped repeatedly, broadcast, and kept in circulation via its website and social media presence.”

An attorney for Watson said in a statement, "We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court."

Attorneys for Tyson said she stands by the statements she made in the interview with Gayle King.

"This lawsuit appears to be yet another desperate stunt by Mr. Fairfax to preserve his political career at the expense of survivors of sexual assault," the attorneys, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, said in a statement.

Virginia House Republican leadership has repeatedly called for a public hearing on the allegations in the General Assembly. Fairfax has repeatedly called for an investigation. Neither has happened.

As lieutenant governor, Fairfax presides over the state Senate in a part-time role that pays around $36,000 a year.

Fairfax's wife and young children have also suffered "emotional trauma, public ridicule, threats to their safety, and invasions of privacy," the lawsuit says.