Judge Throws Out Lawsuit Against Fox News About Coronavirus Coverage on First Amendment Grounds

A Washington state judge has dismissed a lawsuit alleging that Fox News violated the state's Consumer Protection Act (CPA) when its personalities downplayed the coronavirus epidemic as a hoax.

King County Judge Brian McDonald threw out the lawsuit saying that it would violate the network's First Amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of the press.

In early April, the watchdog group Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics (WASHLITE) filed the lawsuit against Fox News, its parent company Fox Corp., the channel distributors AT&T and Comcast, and Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch.

Specifically, the lawsuit claimed that Fox News "knowingly disseminated false, erroneous, and incomplete information" on COVID-19 that was believed by viewers and hampered "implementation of effective mitigation and countermeasures against the virus." The lawsuit also said Fox's coverage "damaged the membership of WASHLITE, in their business, property, and health," adding, "One member of WASHLITE has contracted the virus."

In its filing, WASHLITE cited Fox News personality Sean Hannity's March 9 comments about coronavirus.

"I don't like how we are scaring people unnecessarily, and that is unless you have an immune system that is compromised, and you are older, and have other underlying health issues, you are not going to die 99 percent from this virus," Hannity said. "They are scaring the living hell out of people—I see it, again, as like, let's bludgeon Trump with this new hoax."

WASHLITE also cited Fox News personality Trish Regan who referred to COVID-19 as the "Coronavirus Impeachment Scam" and accused Democrats and the "liberal media" of using the epidemic to "demonize and destroy" President Donald Trump.

Fox News
The Fox News logo at Fox Studios on August 16, 2011 in New York City. Andy Kropa/Getty

In its request to dismiss WASHLITE's lawsuit, Fox News cited instances where Fox News hosts had warned viewers about the severity and lethality of the coronavirus pandemic. Fox News also said that the CPA only regulates deceptive commercial speech and not news reporting or political commentary.

The Internet & Television Association (NCTA), which includes the parent companies of CNN and MSNBC, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press both filed amicus briefs in favor of Fox News, stating, "The constitutional prohibition against unwarranted governmental interference with programming on news networks is especially clear."

In his decision, McDonald wrote, "[The] professed goal in this lawsuit—to ensure that the public receives accurate information about the coronavirus and COVID-19—is laudable. However, the means employed here, a [consumer protection] claim against a cable news channel, runs afoul of the protections of the First Amendment."

WASHLITE has promised to appeal the decision to a state court.

"Using a false portrayal of FOX News Channel's commentary, WASHLITE attempted to silence a national news organization to settle a partisan grievance. This was not only wrong, but contemptuous of the foundation of free speech and we are both pleased the court dismissed this frivolous case and grateful to the First Amendment community that rallied to our side," FOX News said in a statement to Newsweek.

This article has been updated to include a statement from FOX News.