CBS calls Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s defamation suit a ploy to ‘attack’ accusers

By: - November 2, 2019 4:08 pm

Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax speaks to reporters in February in the Capitol in the wake of a sexual assault allegation that surfaced against him. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Attorneys for CBS have asked a federal court to throw out the $400 million defamation lawsuit Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax filed against the television network, saying Fairfax has used the filing to “disparage” and “attack” the two women who accused him of sexual assault.

Fairfax sued CBS in mid-September, claiming the network defamed him by failing to fully vet the allegations before airing emotional interviews with accusers Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson. In the complaint, Fairfax’s attorneys said he filed the suit to defend his reputation and “stop the weaponization of false allegations of sexual assault.”

In a response filed Friday, CBS called Fairfax’s lawsuit baseless and asked the court to dismiss it, arguing the network was reporting on serious allegations against an elected official that had already been widely publicized. The network notes that even though Fairfax declined to be interviewed himself, the segments in question included Fairfax’s denials and information about polygraph tests that Fairfax says support his claims of innocence.

Instead of making serious defamation claims, CBS argues, Fairfax has used the lawsuit as a “press release” to publicize his own accusations against his perceived opponents.

“Fairfax’s pleading is best understood as an attempt to leverage a $400 million lawsuit against CBS to advance his own personal political interests by discrediting both the women who accused him of sexual assault and his political rivals, and to hinder the news media’s investigation of these allegations, rather than to actually seek redress for any harm to his reputation purportedly caused by CBS,” the network’s attorneys wrote.

On his personal Twitter account this week, Fairfax said neither Watson nor her lawyers have “vouched for the truth of her allegation” since he filed his lawsuit. Fairfax’s account posted the same message more than 25 times, tagging a number of prominent journalists and media outlets. CBS attached those Twitter posts in its response asking the court to force Fairfax to pay its legal fees, saying the lieutenant governor has used the lawsuit to target people “wholly unrelated to CBS.”

Noting that Fairfax’s lawsuit includes unproven theories that other Virginia political figures pushed the allegations to thwart his ambitions for statewide office, the network’s lawyers said the “convoluted theory of a conspiracy” is irrelevant to any legal claims against CBS.

CBS said its actions are protected by both the First Amendment and Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law, which seeks to prevent frivolous defamation suits.

“The statute reflects the General Assembly’s strong support for free speech on matters of public concern,” the CBS attorneys said. “It also reflects the sound public policy that the courts should dismiss baseless lawsuits attacking freedom of expression—such as this one—swiftly.”

In a statement Saturday, Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said “it should not go unnoticed” that CBS has not said the allegations are true.

“CBS has now once again avoided publicly asserting the truth of Ms. Watson’s story,” Burke said, adding that Watson and her attorney have “gone radio silent” since Fairfax began saying another person was in the room.

CBS does not have to prove the allegations are true to defend against the defamation suit. Fairfax would have to prove the network acted with “actual malice” by airing allegations it had reason to believe were false, a standard CBS said Fairfax cannot meet.

Vanessa Tyson, a California university professor, said Fairfax sexually assaulted her in a Boston hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Meredith Watson, a Maryland resident who went to Duke University with Fairfax, claims Fairfax raped her in 2000 at a Duke fraternity house.

The lieutenant governor has denied the allegations, insisting both sexual encounters were consensual. He has repeatedly claimed the allegations surfaced to derail his political career when it appeared he might become governor had Gov. Ralph Northam resigned in February over his blackface scandal.

Though Fairfax has called for law enforcement investigations into the allegations, no such investigations have taken place. Republicans pursued the idea of holding General Assembly hearings on the allegations, but Democrats and Fairfax opposed the effort, saying it would result in a politicized show trial.

In a high-stakes election year with control of the General Assembly up for grabs, Republicans have used the Fairfax controversy against Democrats in competitive races, running ads with footage from the CBS interviews and accusing Democrats of shielding one of their own.

In his suit against CBS, Fairfax has suggested an unidentified “eyewitness” was in the room during the encounter with Watson. His lawsuit says that person could have helped CBS test the veracity of Watson’s allegation. The suit also claims a CBS lawyer went to Duke at the same time and may have knowledge of the events in question.

CBS said the unnamed lawyer graduated from Duke a year before the events in question and therefore has no “firsthand information” about the encounter between Fairfax and Watson. The network also says Fairfax did not reveal any information about the alleged eyewitness until July, months after CBS aired its interviews with the accusers.

Earlier exchanges between Fairfax’s legal team and CBS attorneys have also surfaced as part of the litigation.

In a cease-and-desist letter sent to the network Aug. 8, Fairfax attorney Sara Kropf asked for an apology and retraction, saying the CBS lawyer with a college connection to Fairfax “has long been aware of Ms. Watson’s reputation and history of mental and emotional instability.”

“False allegations like those of Ms. Watson aired and promoted by CBS severely undermine the #MeToo Movement by giving fodder to those who fail to take legitimate allegations seriously,” Kropf wrote.

In an Aug. 20 response, CBS attorney Gayle C. Sproul refused what she called an “outrageous demand” and urged Fairfax’s team to “refrain from any further attempts to besmirch the reputation of the CBS lawyer you target in your communications.” Sproul also noted that Fairfax had said his accusers should be respected.

“But how can that noble public position be reconciled with this private communication, in which he asks CBS to brand Ms. Watson a liar, even before any independent investigation has been concluded?” Sproul said. “We cannot help but believe that your empty claims are simply an attempt to strong-arm CBS and to intimidate Ms. Watson, and possibly, Dr. Tyson as well, into silence.”

PDF: CBS filing seeking dismissal of Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax’s lawsuit

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PDF: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s amended complaint against CBS

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]