Fox News had argued that the challenged comments were opinion and protected as such, but Davis disagreed.
“The Court finds, as a matter of law, that the Statements are either fact or mixed opinion,” he wrote. “The Statements were capable of being proven true, and in fact the evidence that would prove the Statements was discussed many times (but never presented).”
He also knocked Fox’s “neutral reporting” claim, finding “the evidence does not support that FNN conducted good-faith, disinterested reporting.”
“FNN’s failure to reveal extensive contradicting evidence from the public sphere and Dominion itself indicates its reporting was not disinterested,” the judge wrote.
The jury will be asked to consider whether Fox News journalists acted with actual malice — knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — in publishing the claims, and whether damages are due. They will also be asked to weigh the involvement of Fox Corp. in the publication of the alleged defamatory statements.
“We are gratified by the Court’s thorough ruling soundly rejecting all of Fox’s arguments and defenses, and finding as a matter of law that their statements about Dominion are false. We look forward to going to trial,” a spokesperson for Dominion said in a statement.
“This case is and always has been about the First Amendment protections of the media’s absolute right to cover the news. 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,” a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement.
Dominion alleges Fox damaged its reputation by promoting phony claims that it was tied to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, paid kickbacks to politicians and “rigged” the presidential election by flipping millions of votes for Donald Trump to Joe Biden.
Jurors will be instructed that those claims are not true — a position Fox News did not challenge in the otherwise hotly contested case.
Dominion argued the claims are defamatory because they accuse the company of “a serious crime” and damaged its reputation, turning it into “one of the most demonized brands in the United States or the world.”
It also contended the claims were made with “actual malice,” which is defined as being made with “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The judge said he was leaving that up to the jury to decide.
In his ruling, Davis suggested he personally had doubts about whether or not Fox Corp. was responsible for the claims.
“The Court finds there are genuine issues as to material facts on whether FC ‘published’ the Statements,” he wrote, noting that Fox Corp. had offered supporting evidence for the claims while Dominion had relied on Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch’s involvement.
But since “reasonable jurors could differ” on the matter, he left the matter to the April jury.
Depositions and documents obtained by Dominion show several Fox executives and TV personalities privately acknowledged that allegations being put forward by Trump’s legal representatives were ludicrous while giving them oxygen on their airwaves.
Fox’s own research “brain room” had also discredited the allegations by mid-November of 2020 — before the bulk of broadcasts and tweets that led to Dominion’s lawsuit.
Fox contended the reports are protected by the First Amendment and that it was reporting on newsworthy allegations from newsworthy people, including the then-president’s attorneys, who were arguing their client was the victim of a stolen election.
The network also pointed out in court filings that the comments were made in segments in shows where the hosts mix opinion with news, arguing that’s something viewers are aware of and that makes Dominion’s legal arguments an even higher hurdle.
“Courts have frequently recognized that rhetorical hyperbole and exaggeration is common on opinion shows,” especially those “normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States,” the company said in a filing last month.
Dominion countered that “Fox is trying to conflate telling the truth with knowingly spreading a lie.”
“It is wrong, legally and morally, to knowingly spread lies. The court should not accept Fox’s invitation to ignore that simple truth,” the company argued.
In his ruling, the judge rejected Fox’s arguments. “Accusations of criminal activity, even in the form of opinion, are not constitutionally protected,” Davis wrote.
The trial is scheduled to begin April 17.