Fox News Must Face Defamation Claim

     ORLANDO, Fla. (CN) – Fox News cannot dismiss claims that it defamed two Florida women by broadcasting a film that falsely accused them of stealing a beach canopy, a federal judge ruled.
     In July 2014, Kathleen Duffy and Linda Duffy Kelley met with friends and family in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., to celebrate Independence Day. Toward the end of the day, the two women temporarily left the group to feed and walk their dogs, and later returned to the beach to retrieve their belongings and those of the group, including beach chairs, toys and beach canopies.
     While the women were trying to pack what they believed to be their belongings, at the site where they thought they had left them, a man approached them, claiming the things belonged to him.
     The women claimed they were confused because the belongings were similar, if not identical, to theirs. Although the man never accused them of attempted theft, he filmed the encounter with a portable device, despite their protests, the plaintiffs claimed in a federal complaint they filed in September.
     Duffy and Kelley claimed the film showed they were confused and surprised and that they left the things on the beach once they realized their mistake. However, Fox News acquired the footage and ran it on TV and online on July 6, 2014, according to the complaint.
     The women sued Fox News Network for defamation and invasion of privacy, claiming the comments and text accompanying the film and related article called them “thieves” and accused them of “stealing” and of “attempted theft,” among other things. They said Fox News knew the statements were false or never checked the facts before showing the footage and publishing the article.
     Fox News asked the Federal Court in Orlando to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiffs could not allege that Fox had made any false statements of fact. The network also claimed that the statements at issue were protected speech under the First Amendment.
     U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton Jr. ruled Thursday that the defamation claims could move forward, as the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that Fox News’ statements were defamatory and had caused them damages.
     Duffy and Kelley also complied with notice requirements by sending Fox News a timely pre-suit demand letter that identified the allegedly defamatory statements and their source, according to the May 21 ruling.
     Dalton also refused to dismiss the claims as “pure opinion” or “rhetorical hyperbole” protected under the First Amendment. Noting that the allegedly defamatory segment aired during a “Fox & Friends Weekend” morning show, the judge said that “a reasonable viewer could just as easily be of the mind that a program that holds itself out as a provider of ‘news’ implies that it involves some aspect of investigative journalism above and beyond mere opinions on random current events culled from the Internet landscape.”
     The news network’s website, known as “Fox News Insider,” could also suggest that Fox News’ information goes beyond comical clips and rhetorical hyperbole, the order adds.
     Dalton denied the plaintiffs’ request for summary judgment on liability for defamation per se in a separate order Friday, finding it premature with more than four months of discovery left before the October 30 deadline.
     Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Fox News did not respond to requests for comment.

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