N.Y. judge dismisses portion of coach's wife's libel suit against ESPN

Lilly Chapa | Libel | News | February 19, 2013

A New York judge dismissed a portion of a libel suit against ESPN because the statements in question were reported from court documents and therefore protected under the state's fair report privilege.

District Judge Lawrence Kahn ruled that a television segment and articles produced by ESPN about Laurie Fine, the wife of former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine who was accused of child molestation, are not considered libelous because they are “fair and true” reports of a court affidavit. In November, prosecutors dropped all the child molestation charges against Bernie Fine.

“The Court finds that the affidavit and hearing articles are fair and true reports and that no ambiguity or implication of graver misconduct exists to present a question of fact,” Kahn stated in the opinion.

In May, Laurie Fine sued ESPN for six counts of libel for reporting that she slept with Syracuse basketball players and that she knew her husband was a pedophile. According to Laurie Fine, those allegations were false. There are still five counts of libel brought by Linda Fine against ESPN for the courts to address.

The one count of libel that was dropped involved two ESPN reports based on an affidavit filed by former ballboy Bobby Davis as part of his slander suit against current Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boheim. Davis claimed to have been molested by Bernie Fine from the late 1970s to the 1990s, and sued Boheim for calling him a liar. A judge later threw out the slander suit.

A defamatory statement can be protected under the “fair and true” standard under New York civil rights law if it is reported from an official proceeding and is substantially accurate. The court also takes into account whether the statement is objective or implies graver misconduct than the proceedings alleged.

Laurie Fine’s lawyer argued that New York’s fair report law does not protect the statements in question because they were based on information from a case that was thrown out. Kahn said the purpose of the law is to protect reports of all official proceedings, no matter their results.

Kahn ruled that since the articles are “fair and true reports of judicial proceedings” and do not imply graver misconduct, they are privileged and immune to libel suits.

ESPN and its attorney declined to comment.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Defenses -- Anti-SLAPP statutes