(CN) - The "Fox & Friends" cable news talk show is not liable for defamation after the co-hosts laughed over a ham-related "hate crime" at a Massachusetts middle school, the 1st Circuit ruled.
Muslim students of Somali descent complained when a student placed a bag of ham on their cafeteria table. The assistant principal suspended the student for 10 days and filed a police report on what he classified as a "hate crime."
The local media picked up on the story, leading to publication of a related story on the Associated Content (AC) Web site. AC writer Nicholas Plagman wrote a news-style story with fictional quotes sprinkled in, discussing the school's "anti-ham response plan" and a quote from an anti-hate crime advocate saying "We have to teach these children that ham is not a toy."
Fox picked up the incident as a serious news story because Plagman filed it under AC's "humor" and "news" categories. Steven Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, two of the show's co-hosts, ridiculed Lewiston school superintendent Leon Levesque for the "ham is not a toy" quote, as well as his (fabricated) quote comparing the students' plight to being "shot at back in Mogadishu and starved to death."
Levesque sued for libel and defamation, and the district court granted summary judgment to Fox. Judge Stahl of the Boston-based federal appeals court upheld the decision.
"The defendants' references to an 'anti-ham response plan' were not defamatory," Stahl ruled. "Statements that contain imaginative expression or rhetorical hyperbole are protected."
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