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Judge dismisses Va. lieutenant governor's libel suit against CBS

(WHSV)
Published: Feb. 11, 2020 at 5:28 PM EST
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UPDATE (Feb. 11):

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 levied 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 Fairfax’s 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 alleged 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.

Fairfax has said he felt compelled to file the lawsuit to 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.

In a statement Tuesday, Fairfax said he will appeal the idsmissal 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 the 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.

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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.

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