A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit accusing Tucker Carlson of slander for stating that a model who was paid $150,000 to stay quiet about her relationship with President Trump had engaged in “a classic case of extortion.”
Karen McDougal filed the suit last year, alleging that Carlson had damaged her reputation by falsely accusing her of criminal conduct. U.S. District Judge Mary Vyskocil ruled that Carlson’s statement was rhetorical hyperbole, and therefore does not rise to the level of defamation.
“Fox persuasively argues… that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes,” Vyskocil wrote. “Whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson’s statements as ‘exaggeration,’ ‘non-literal commentary,’ or simply bloviating for his audience, the conclusion remains the same — the statements are not actionable.”
Fox News hailed the ruling, calling it a victory for free speech.
“Karen McDougal’s lawsuit attempted to silence spirited opinion commentary on matters of public concern,” a network spokesperson said. “The court today held that the First Amendment plainly prohibits such efforts to stifle free speech. The decision is a victory not just for Fox News Media, but for all defenders of the First Amendment.”
McDougal’s attorneys had argued that Fox News had displayed “actual malice” against her, which is the standard a plaintiff must meet when the accuser is a public figure. They pointed to 47 tweets issued by the president praising Carlson as evidence that Carlson and the president have a friendly relationship, and that therefore Carlson is “personally and politically biased” in the president’s favor.
The plaintiff’s attorneys argued the case is similar to a suit brought by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin against the New York Times over an editorial that falsely suggested a link between Palin’s political speech and the Gabby Giffords shooting. That lawsuit survived a motion to dismiss and is headed to trial.
But Vyskocil held that the cases are different, and that McDougal’s allegations about Carlson’s motives were speculative and conclusory.
The case bears some resemblance to a recent suit against MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, over a segment in which she said that One America News Network “really literally is paid Russian propaganda.” In that case, a judge dismissed the suit, finding that Maddow was giving an exaggerated opinion, and that a reasonable viewer would not take the statement as a literal fact.
In both cases, judges found that viewers are expected to understand that in the context of a cable news show, statements they hear may not be literally true.