Three Fox News hosts — Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro — are seeking the dismissal of claims against them and their employer as part of a $2.7 billion libel lawsuit brought from the voting tech company Smartmatic.
Bartiromo, Dobbs and Pirro, in addition to Donald Trump attorneys Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, were seized this month to its eye-popping amount by Smartmatic, which accused them of conspiring to spread false claims that the company was involved in a bid to steal the presidential election from Trump.
In its moves, attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis, which can be defending Fox, argue Bartiromo, Dobbs and Pirro were performing their job at covering the biggest story of the day: unprecedented allegations from the president that the integrity of the electoral process was marred by fraud.
Smartmatic in its own 285-page complaint filed Feb. 4 in state court in New York had cited at least 13 reports on Fox News where guests or personalities stated or implied that the company had somehow helped steal the election through easily tampered technologies or in cahoots with Venezuela’s socialist government.
The complaint alleged that the”disinformation campaign” lasted after then-Attorney General William Barr said the Department of Justice could find no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
“Smartmatic is convinced in its own case and looks forward to briefing those issues for the Court,” J. Erik Connolly, attorney for Smartmatic, wrote Friday in a statement.
The lawsuit is being closely watched as the rise of far-right voices on social media and pro-Trump outlets such as Newsmax and One America News challenge long-held assumptions about the limitations of free speech.
The filings by the Fox characters note cases in which they contested Powell and Giuliani for evidence to back their claims, in addition to Smartmatic’s own denial of the charges. Additionally, it asserts that Dobbs’ statements appearing to validate the claims of his guests were constitutionally protected opinions, not statements of truth.
On Dec. 18, each of 3 hosts aired a segment with a professional debunking a few of the claims that had been made on its networks from Smartmatic and a different voting tech firm, Dominion.
The Fox Business Network fell Dobbs’ show Feb. 5, a day after the suit was filed. The system said the move was part of a planned programming shift rather than related to the lawsuit.
Bartiromo in her movement suggests an alternate reason for what she predicts Smartmatic’s”headline-seeking” litigation: an effort by the company to fill its coffers after reporting losses of $17 million on $144 million in earnings in 2019.
“This criticism is not just meritless; it’s a legal shakedown designed to chill address and penalize reporting on issues that cut into the heart of the democracy,” her lawyers argue.
Roy Gutterman, a press law professor at Syracuse University, said Fox in its own motion made reasonable arguments about First Amendment rights and its own obligation to fuel public discourse on major political issues.
“Whether the broadcaster is liable for providing a forum for speakers and the responsibility they have for dealing with false factual statements will be central to the court’s decision,” he explained.
Still, he said, if Fox succeeds in persuading the court to dismiss the case, the individual guests — Giuliani and Powell — could continue to be liable for potentially false and damaging statements.
Smartmatic’s involvement from the U.S. election was restricted to one district, Los Angeles County, which votes heavily Democratic.
That restricted role notwithstanding, the business and its technologies were widely and baselessly blamed by Trump fans for somehow tilting the race in favour of Joe Biden. The effects of the negative publicity were swift and contained death threats against an executive 14-year-old son, the loss of company and a lasting stain on its reputation, Smartmatic claims.
The business fears its whole business, once worth billions as it expanded to countries around the world, from Belgium to the Philippines, could be appreciated near zero.
Like many conspiracy theories, the alleged campaign against Smartmatic was built on a grain of reality. The organization’s founder and CEO is Venezuelan, and Smartmatic’s initial success is partly attributable to major contracts from Hugo Chávez’s government, an early devotee of digital voting.
Dobbs, in his movement to join the Fox petition for dismissal, points out that he covered Smartmatic a decade earlier, in 2006, when employed by CNN. At the time the company was facing scrutiny by U.S. lawmakers concerned about its purchase of an American rival so shortly afterwards it had helped arrange elections in Venezuela that were marred by allegations of fraud.