The blockbuster $1.6 billion defamation case against Fox News is expected to head to trial as early as Tuesday, the start of a landmark test of the news media’s First Amendment protections and culpability for spreading disinformation.
Lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems, the election technology company that brought the suit, will be the first to offer opening statements before the jury in Delaware Superior Court in Wilmington.
Dominion sued Fox in March 2021, accusing the TV network of willfully spreading conspiracy theories that linked its machines to vote rigging in the 2020 presidential election. The claims, which have been debunked, were pushed by former President Donald J. Trump and some of his supporters and given a platform night after night on Fox News by hosts and the guests they invited on air.
Fox has said that it was merely reporting on newsworthy allegations involving a matter of public interest, and that its broadcasts and commentary were protected by the First Amendment. But the judge ruled during pretrial hearings that Fox could not rely on free speech protections in its defense because, as a broadcaster, it had a responsibility to ensure that the information it aired was accurate.
The trial is scheduled to continue until late May, and high-profile witnesses are expected to include Rupert Murdoch, the head of the Murdoch media empire; the Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo; and the Fox News chief executive, Suzanne Scott. Judge Eric M. Davis will not allow video or photography in the courtroom, but a public audio feed will be available.
What to Know About Dominion Voting Systems
A voting machine maker suing Fox News. Dominion Voting Systems, an elections technology firm, has accused Fox News of spreading false narratives about its voting machines following the 2020 election. Here is what we know about the company behind the landmark $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit:
What is Dominion? The company became one of the largest providers of election technology in the United States by selling, licensing and maintaining products such as its Democracy Suite software and ImageCast voting and tabulation machines. During the 2020 election, Dominion served 28 states, including many swing states, as well as Puerto Rico.
How did Dominion get started? John Poulos, the company’s chief executive, started Dominion out of his Toronto basement in 2003. The company scored its first American contract in 2009, providing voting technology to dozens of counties in New York. The next year, it moved its headquarters to Denver, where it now has several hundred employees.
Who owns Dominion? Staple Street Capital, a private equity firm in New York, is the majority owner of the company. Fox said in a legal filing that Staple Street paid $38.3 million in 2018 to acquire 76.2 percent of Dominion. At the time, the private equity firm valued the technology vendor at $80 million, according to Fox’s filing. Poulos retains roughly a 12 percent stake.
Why is Dominion suing Fox? Dominion has accused Fox of broadcasting lies after the 2020 election that “deeply damaged” its “once-thriving” business, “one of the fastest-growing technology companies in North America” with a potential value of more than $1 billion. Fox has said the $1.6 billion that Dominion is seeking is “a staggering figure that has no factual support.”
Late Sunday, Judge Davis announced that he was delaying the start of the trial by a day. He gave no reason for the delay in that announcement.
The core question of the case: Did Fox knowingly spread lies that harmed Dominion? Judge Davis has already ruled that the claims in question were false; the jurors will be asked to determine whether Fox acted with “actual malice” — a legal standard in defamation law that means a party intentionally spread false information or was so reckless that it disregarded obvious evidence that the statements were not true.
Hundreds of pages of internal Fox communications that were made public as part of the case show many executives, as well as hosts including Mr. Carlson and Laura Ingraham, privately expressing skepticism about the vote-rigging claims, while a different narrative was broadcast.
Lawyers for Dominion will argue that Fox was motivated by profit to continue pushing the false claims: Its audience, Dominion says, was starting to flee to more right-wing networks in the wake of Mr. Trump’s defeat and panicked executives pushed the conspiracy theory to lure back sympathetic Trump supporters.
If jurors find that Fox maliciously spread the lies, they will have to decide what an appropriate damages award would be. Fox’s lawyers have questioned Dominion’s claim of $1.6 billion in damages, saying the company has vastly overvalued itself and overstated how much business it has lost.
Fox News v. Dominion Voter Systems
- Understand the Case: Dominion’s $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox could help decide the boundaries of press freedom. Here’s a look at both sides of the case and its broader implications.
- Falsehoods on Trial: The jury will be asked to weigh the limits of the First Amendment. But there is another fundamental question the case raises: Will there be a price to pay for profiting from the spread of misinformation?
- Running Fox: Emails that lawyers for Dominion have used to build their defamation case give a peek into how Rupert Murdoch shapes coverage at his news organizations.
- Behind the Curtain: Texts and emails released as part of the lawsuit show how Fox employees privately mocked election fraud claims made by Donald Trump, even as the network amplified them to appease viewers.
In a pretrial hearing last week, Fox said documents it had received from Dominion, which is majority-owned by the private equity firm Staple Street Capital Partners, showed that the company had its second-best year financially in 2022 and outstripped its own projections. Dominion has said that its business and reputation were greatly harmed by the lies and that its employees have faced threats as a result.
“In the coming weeks, we will prove Fox spread lies causing enormous damage to Dominion,” a Dominion spokeswoman said in an emailed statement on Saturday. “We look forward to trial.”
A Fox News spokeswoman said in a statement that Dominion’s lawsuit was “a political crusade in search of a financial windfall, but the real cost would be cherished First Amendment rights.”
“While Dominion has pushed irrelevant and misleading information to generate headlines,” she said, “Fox News remains steadfast in protecting the rights of a free press, given a verdict for Dominion and its private equity owners would have grave consequences for the entire journalism profession.”