A shady liberal group filed a lawsuit against Fox News, attempting to restrain the network’s coronavirus coverage and get Fox News slapped with hefty penalties. The Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics (WASHLITE), which appears not to have a public website, filed a lawsuit against Fox, claiming that when Sean Hannity and Trish Regan condemned the left for using the coronavirus to attack President Donald Trump they had minimized the threat of the coronavirus, endangering viewers and violating Washington State’s Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
On Tuesday, Fox News filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, citing the First Amendment right to free speech.
“It’s Constitutional Law 101: the First Amendment protects our right to speak openly and freely on matters of public concern. If WASHLITE doesn’t like what we said, it can criticize us, but it can’t silence us with a lawsuit,” Fox News General Counsel and Executive Vice President Lily Fu Claffee said in a statement.
The motion condemns WASHLITE’s complaint as a “frontal assault on the freedom of speech” that “flagrantly violates the First Amendment and fails to state a claim.”
“Fox’s statements are core political speech on a matter of public concern—how dangerous the Coronavirus is, and how society should respond to it. Under the First Amendment and state law, the truth or falsity of this type of speech must be resolved through free and open debate in the marketplace of ideas—not through burdensome litigation seeking to impose legal penalties on political statements that a jury might deem ‘false’ or ‘outrageous,'” the complaint says.
The WASHLITE complaint cites two examples of Fox News segments that they claim violate the Washington Consumer Protection Act, which bans “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.” The act does not apply to television broadcasting stations that distribute information “in good faith without knowledge of its false, deceptive or misleading character.”
The lawsuit zeroes in on two statements: Sean Hannity on March 9 saying, “They’re scaring the living hell out of people, and I see it as, like, ‘Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump again with this new hoax'”; and Trish Regan saying accusing liberals of creating mass hysteria over the virus to shut down the economy under a graphic reading, “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam.”
The Fox News motion to dismiss put the comments in context.
Hannity had criticized left-leaning media figures for creating a “hoax” around the coronavirus in order to impeach Trump again. “The mob and the media—well, they will be advancing their new conspiracy theory and their newest hoax. Probably, they will come up with, hypothetically, I’m just guessing, wouldn’t shock me, President Trump, Putin, mad scientists of Russia and Ukraine are manufacturing the Coronavirus on purpose so they can hurt innocent children and kill grandma and grandpa,” he said. In the same segment, he said, “the coronavirus is a serious disease” and called on “all of us” to “take necessary precautionary steps.”
Trish Regan criticized “the liberal media” for “using coronavirus in an attempt to demonize and destroy the president.” She also cited claims — based on earlier reports — that the flu may be more deadly than the coronavirus, but she said, “I’m not saying that people should not take [it] seriously, and everybody should be urged to exercise caution and wash their hands and not go to work if they’re sick.”
No fewer than 74 journalism professors wrote an open letter to Fox News claiming the network’s coverage of the coronavirus “is a danger to public health.” Yet other outlets also expressed skepticism about the coronavirus, claiming it posed no greater threat than the flu. As late as March 4, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said Americans should “be more concerned about the flu.”
Elizabeth Hallock, a Green Party candidate for governor of Washington and one of WASHLITE’s attorneys, noted that the classic example of a limit to free speech is someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded room when there is no fire. Comparably, she said of Fox News, “They’re yelling, ‘There is no fire!’ when there is a fire,” Forbes reported.
Yet these two examples of Fox supposedly violating the CPA are not as damning as WASHLITE suggests, and if downplaying the threat of the virus supposedly endangers Washington citizens, other media outlets should also be liable for their coverage throughout February.
When Donald Trump himself condemned liberal attacks against him over the coronavirus as a “hoax,” liberal outlets and Democrats falsely claimed the president called the virus itself a hoax, but fact-checkers defended the president. The Trump campaign is now suing a Wisconsin TV station for airing an ad making the false claim. Hannity and Regan were doing something similar, and WASHLITE is trying to weaponize the same false narrative.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.