WASHINGTON (CN) — A high-profile lawsuit filed by a voting systems company against media giant Fox News will have its day in court, a Delaware state judge ruled Friday.
Dominion Voting Systems claims Fox pushed a narrative on its news shows that the company’s voting machines had incorrectly tabulated votes in the 2020 election that ended in victory for President Joe Biden — part of a larger, roundly debunked theory from former President Donald Trump and his surrogates that the election was fraudulent.
In its defamation suit, filed in 2021, Dominion says Fox News gave a platform to these attacks on its voting systems, knowing all the while that they were falsehoods. The firm has provided a trove of documents and messages between Fox employees that its says demonstrate the media company was aware it was disseminating misinformation.
Fox, meanwhile, argues statements made by its hosts and guests on the news network fall within the hosts' and guests' First Amendment rights and that the information it shared was newsworthy.
The network has also contended Dominion did not meet a legal threshold for defamation cases known as actual malice, which require the company to prove that its business or reputation was affected by knowingly false statements from Fox.
In his Friday ruling, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis refused to decide whether Fox’s statements rise to the level of actual malice. “The court does not weigh the evidence to determine who may have been responsible for publication and if such people acted with actual malice,” Davis wrote. “There are genuine issues of material fact and therefore must be determined by a jury.”
Davis further refused to weigh in on how much Fox should be forced to pay Dominion if it lost the case. “The calculation of damages is a question for the jury,” he said.
Dominion seeks around $1.6 billion in damages from Fox.
Despite that, the court’s 130-page ruling found that a number of statements made by Fox about Dominion could qualify as defamation. Among those, Davis pointed to claims that the voting systems company committed election fraud, that it was owned by a Venezuelan company that rigged elections for dictator Hugo Chavez and that it paid government officials who used Dominion voting machines in the 2020 election.
Such statements are accusations of criminal activity and are not constitutionally protected free speech, even if expressed as an opinion, Davis wrote.
He also rejected Fox’s argument that its reporting on Dominion machines is not defamatory under the neutral report privilege, judicial precedent that protects media reporting information that it believes is newsworthy.
“Even if the neutral report privilege did apply, the evidence does not support that defendant conducted good-faith, disinterested reporting,” Davis wrote.
The trial between Dominion and Fox is scheduled to begin April 17. The court’s ruling comes after lawyers for both companies met with Davis this month in hopes of summary judgment rather than mandate what could be a protracted trial.
Dominion has demanded that several prominent network hosts, such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, stand for questioning.
“This case is and always has been about the First Amendment protections of the media’s absolute right to cover the news," a spokesperson for Fox News said in a statement Friday. "FOX will continue to fiercely advocate for the rights of free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of these proceedings.”
Updated 04/01/2023 12:03 a.m. Eastern time.
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