Fairfax v. CBS Corp., No. 20-1298 (4th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
In 2019, the television program CBS This Morning broadcast interviews with two women who accused Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, of sexual assault. Fairfax had previously denied the allegations. Although he admitted that both sexual encounters occurred, he claimed they were entirely consensual. The CBS interviewer, Gayle King read from a statement Fairfax had given CBS denying the allegations. King directed viewers to Fairfax’s full statement on CBS’s website. Fairfax later issued a public letter to a North Carolina district attorney, alleging for the first time the existence of an eyewitness. Fairfax demanded that CBS retract the interviews, and CBS refused.
Fairfax sued CBS for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court dismissed the complaint in its entirety but denied CBS’s motion for attorney’s fees and costs finding that CBS established its entitlement to statutory immunity under Virginia’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Fairfax’s complaint fails to plausibly allege that CBS made the allegedly defamatory statements with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity, as required to state a claim for defamation of a public official. The fee-shifting statute is discretionary, not mandatory or presumptive. Fairfax’s allegations did not plausibly allege that CBS broadcast its This Morning programs despite entertaining “serious doubts as to the truth” of those broadcasts.