DOVER, Del. (AP) — A Delaware judge's ruling Friday set the stage for a dramatic springtime trial on whether Fox News bears financial responsibility for airing false allegations that a voting machine company rigged the 2020 presidential election against former President Donald Trump.
Superior Court Judge Eric Davis ruled that it was "CRYSTAL clear" that none of the allegations made by Trump allies on Fox in the weeks after the election were true.
Davis said it was up to a jury to decide whether Fox acted with actual malice in airing the claims and, if so, how much money Dominion is entitled to in damages. Dominion has sued Fox for $1.6 billion.
Barring a last-minute settlement, the trial is expected to begin in mid-April.
"The statements at issue were dramatically different than the truth," Davis said in a summary judgment ruling, which denied Fox's effort to throw out the case as well as Dominion's request for a victory without a jury. "In fact, although it cannot be attributed directly to Fox's statements, it is noteworthy that some Americans still believe the election was rigged."
Fox's failure to reveal extensive evidence contradicting the fraud claims "indicates that its reporting was not disinterested," the judge wrote.
In a statement issued after the ruling, Dominion said it was gratified that the court had rejected Fox's arguments and found "as a matter of law that their statements about Dominion are false. We look forward to going to trial."
Fox emphasized that the case is about the media's First Amendment protections, and that it was trying to cover highly newsworthy developments — a sitting president's claim that an election was rigged.
"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," the network said in a statement Friday.
The ruling sets the stage for a trial in which Fox News stars such as Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo, as well as network founder Rupert Murdoch, could be called to the stand.
Even before the judge's ruling, thousands of pages of evidence presented in the case showed Fox executives and stars privately ridiculing the accusations and bluntly expressing opinions, like Carlson saying he hated Trump "passionately."
During a deposition, Murdoch testified that he believed the 2020 election was fair and had not been stolen from the former president.
"Fox knew the truth," Dominion argued in court papers. "It knew the allegations against Dominion were 'outlandish' and 'crazy' and 'ludicrous' and 'nuts.' Yet it used the power and influence of its platform to promote that false story."
Fox aired the allegations despite the doubts of its hosts and executives, and the coverage helped feed an ecosystem of misinformation surrounding Trump's loss in 2020 that has persisted ever since.
The documents also showed Fox feared losing viewers angered by the network's election night call of Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden, and how it didn't want to alienate viewers who backed Trump.
In methodically going through each side's arguments, Davis said neither Fox nor Dominion had presented a convincing argument for him to rule on whether or not the network acted with malice.
"These are genuine issues of material fact and therefore must be determined by a jury," he said.
Davis denied summary judgment to Dominion on whether Fox Corp., the news network's parent company, was liable for the statements being aired — meaning the corporate executives' responsibility will have to be settled at trial.
The Trump allies had falsely claimed after the election that Dominion's machines and accompanying software had switched votes from Trump to Biden. Dominion claims it has lost millions of dollars in business because this belief spread across the country; Fox contends its claims are overblown.
"The calculation of damages is a question for the jury," Davis said.
Davis ruled that the statements Dominion had challenged constitute defamation "per se" under New York law. That means Dominion did not have to prove damages to establish liability by Fox.
The U.S. Supreme Court limited the ability of public figures to sue for defamation in a 1964 case involving The New York Times. It ruled that plaintiffs needed to prove that news outlets published or aired false material with "actual malice" — knowing it was false or acting with a "reckless disregard" for whether or not it was true.
That has provided news organizations with stout protection against libel judgments. The nearly six-decade legal standard has come under attack by some conservatives in recent years, including Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have argued for making it easier to win a libel case.
Bauder reported from New York. Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.