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Levesque v. Doocy, et al.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the cable news show Fox & Friends on the plaintiff’s claims for defamation and false light invasion of privacy. The dispute between the parties arose from the Fox News Channel’s coverage of an incident that occurred at a middle school in Lewiston, Maine. A student at the school placed a bag containing ham on a table where Somali students were eating lunch. The Somali students, who were Muslims, were very upset about the incident. Thereafter, the student was suspended for ten school days. The plaintiff, Leon Levesque, is the superintendent of the Lewiston School Department.

An article about the incident ran in the Lewiston Sun Journal and included quotations from Levesque regarding the incident. A week later, an article appeared on a website called Associated Content. The article, apparently a parody, purported to describe the incident with quotations from Levesque, but some of the facts and quotations were fabricated and falsely quoted Levesque making ridiculous comments about the incident such as “[a]ll our students should feel welcome in our schools, knowing that they are safe from attacks with ham, bacon, pork chops, or any other delicious meat that comes from pigs.”

A Fox & Friends producer discovered the Associated Content article and sent the piece to the Fox News Research Department for further research. There, another Fox employee confirmed some of the facts presented in the article. After receiving these materials, defendant Steve Doocy conducted additional research through the search engine Google News and found a Boston Globe article on the Boston Globe website which corroborated the general story recounted in the Associated Content article. Thereafter, the defendants decided that they would include the story in the that morning’s show. During their cablecast, the defendants repeatedly raised and discussed the incident, “relentlessly ridiculing Levesque and his handling of the episode.” They reported as true some of the quotations that were falsely attributed to him.

Sometime after the cablecast, Levesque’s lawyers contacted Fox News Channel to complain about the inaccuracies in the cablecast. Thereafter, Fox & Friends issued a retraction and apology, admitting that “various quotes were cited to Superintendent Leon Levesque that turned out to be fictitious” and that had Fox & Friends “known the source was not legit it never would have mentioned them.” Levesque filed this lawsuit asserting both defamation and false light invasion of privacy claims. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment.

The court first noted that both claims required Levesque to prove that the defendants made false statements with knowledge or reckless disregard of their truth or falsity, and that the statements were either defamatory (defamation claim) or highly offensive (false light claim). The court examined each statement made to determine whether it was false or defamatory in nature. The court reasoned that while some statements may be protected as opinion, Levesque had identified some statements as false statements of fact. Similarly, the court held that “[a] reasonable jury would certainly grasp the ridicule in the defendants’ portrayal of the incident and could conclude that the false statements were defamatory.”

The court then considered whether the defendants acted with reckless disregard of the truth. The court stated that “[t]o find that that the defendants acted with actual malice, ‘there must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that they in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of their publication,’ or that they ‘made the false publication with a high degree of awareness of . . . probable falsity.’” The court reasoned that “the defendants were certainly gullible. Even if they believed the segments of [the article] that they repeated on the air, at least two portions of [the article] were so absurd that they should have raised the defendants’ truth-seeking antennae and caused them to question the accuracy of the article as a whole.” However, it went on to state that “unprofessional conduct does not amount to reckless disregard of the truth,” and “failure to investigate before publishing, even when a reasonably prudent person would have done so, is not sufficient to establish reckless disregard.” Thus, the court held that in light of the evidence in the record a reasonable jury could not find that the defendants acted with reckless disregard of the truth. The defendants’ negligence was not enough to satisfy the actual malice standard.