Judge tosses school officials lawsuit against Fox News

June 4, 2008 6:45:47 PM PDT
A federal judge has thrown out a school superintendent's lawsuit against Fox News, saying the cable news channel acted unprofessionally but without malice when anchors on "Fox and Friends" reported a parody story about ham as fact last year. The case was an outgrowth of an April 2007 prank in which a middle school student tossed a slab of leftover Easter ham onto a table surrounded by Somali Muslim youngsters, knowing the Muslims would be offended. Muslims consider pork unclean.

A few days later, a parody story spoofing the ham controversy was posted online. The story attributed numerous made-up quotes to Superintendent Leon Levesque, including the need to teach kids that "ham is not a toy" and references to developing an "anti-ham response plan." The joke story, written by freelancer Nicholas Plagman, falsely listed the Associated Press as the source of the information.

The spoof was reported as fact on "Fox and Friends" on April 23. After Levesque contacted Fox, the network aired a retraction.

Among other things, the anchors had quoted Levesque as saying, "All our students should feel welcome in our schools, knowing that they are safe from attacks with ham, bacon, pork chops or any other delicious meat that comes from pigs."

The anchors also told viewers several times, "We are not making this up."

In his slander suit, Levesque who sought $75,000 in damages, said he was ridiculed and overwhelmed for days with phone calls and hate mail, including threatening calls to his home.

U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby, who sits in Portland, concluded Tuesday that Fox News was unprofessional in reporting false and "outrageous quotations" without confirming their accuracy, but did not act out of malice.

Named as defendants in the suit were Fox News Network, and "Fox and Friends" co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade.

The Fox co-hosts "were certainly gullible," Hornby wrote, adding that portions of the fake story were "so absurd that they should have raised the defendants' truth-seeking antennae and caused them to question the accuracy of the article."

But failure to investigate before publishing, "even when a reasonably prudent person would have done so, is not sufficient to establish reckless disregard," the judge concluded. "The First Amendment protects journalists even when they are gullible."

Levesque's lawyer, Bernard Kubetz, expressed disappointment at the ruling and said he and his client were considering an appeal.

Messages seeking comment from Fox News Network were not immediately returned Wednesday.

AP-NY-06-04-08 1336EDT