Strictly Legal: Is Fox News entitled to First Amendment protection? – The Cincinnati Enquirer

Posted: May 29, 2020 at 1:02 am

Jack Greiner Published 9:25 a.m. ET May 27, 2020 | Updated 12:32 p.m. ET May 28, 2020

Jack Greiner, attorney for Graydon(Photo: Provided, Provided)

The Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics (Washlite), a public interest group in Washington state is suing Fox News under the Washington Consumer Protection Act for its alleged campaign of deception and omission regarding the danger of the international proliferation of the novel Coronavirus.

According to the complaint, Fox knowingly disseminated false, erroneous, and incomplete information . . . , [which] created an ongoing uncertainty amongst some members of the public as to the dangers of the virus and the rapidity with which the virus spreads.

Not surprisingly, Fox filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the First Amendment prohibits the claim. The response from Washlite is interesting.

Rather than arguing that there is some particular exception here that would allow a court to find Fox liable despite the First Amendment, Washlite swings for the fences and contends that the First Amendment doesnt even apply to a cable television programmer/content provider . . . using a system owned and operated by a cable operator. It also contends that cable television does not stand on equal footing as print media or broadcast television.

That seems like a pretty strong and misguided contention. The Supreme Court has applied the First Amendment to video games, so it certainly has not confined freedom of speech to just traditional outlets.

To support its position, Washlite cited a Supreme Court case where three Justices wrote that cable programmers using a private cable system owned by another have no independent constitutional right to speak through the cable medium. Based on that limited ruling, Washlite contends a cable programmer has no First Amendment rights. That is, I think, a bit of an overstatement.

What the Justices were saying in that case was more limited. The ruling merely stands for the notion that [l]ike a free-lance writer seeking a paper in which to publish newspaper editorials, a programmer is protected in searching for an outlet for cable programming, but has no free-standing First Amendment right to have that programming transmitted. All this means is that a programmer cant assert the First Amendment to force someone to carry the programming. But thats a different issue than whether a cable programmer, who has found an outlet, can be punished for the programming. And thats the question in this case.

Its understandable that people may be frustrated with anyone who spreads misinformation about a deadly pandemic. But thats the thing about the First Amendment. It protects the right of a speaker even an ignorant and misinformed speaker to say their piece.

As an update, on May 27, after this column was written, the Washington Superior Court granted Foxs motion to dismiss, agreeing that Fox is protected by the First Amendment, and it bars this suit.

Jack Greiner is managing partner of Graydon law firm in Cincinnati. He represents Enquirer Media in First Amendment and media issues.

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Strictly Legal: Is Fox News entitled to First Amendment protection? - The Cincinnati Enquirer

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