A potentially misleading Fox News caption did not provide a sufficient basis for a finding of false and defamatory meaning when viewed as just one part of an entire broadcast, a California appeals court ruled Thursday in a 2-1 decision.
The Fourth District Court of Appeals opinion centered on the caption “MANHUNT AT THE BORDER,” which aired on “Hannity & Colmes” during a November 2006 segment on anti-illegal-immigration advocate John Monti’s claim that a group of illegal immigrants had attacked him when he tried to photograph them. The caption was on-screen throughout the four-minute piece, during which the network showed a “wanted” poster created by Monti and picturing the seven plaintiffs.
The appeals court ruled that the libel claim was properly dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute, because the plaintiffs would be unable to show that Fox actually made the statement "that law enforcement officials were conducting a ‘manhunt’ for plaintiffs.” The court rejected the argument that such a statement was implied by the “manhunt” caption. The court concluded that the only reasonable reading of the caption, viewed in the context of the entire segment, was that it referred to Monti’s own search for the workers who allegedly assaulted him.
The fact that the caption was on-screen throughout the entire segment actually helped Fox, because the court found “a reasonable viewer would understand the caption’s purpose was to highlight and draw attention to the story, rather than as a vehicle for communicating an objective fact that was not consistent with the verbal portion of the story.”
Fox News lawyer Guylyn R. Cummins said what mattered in the case is that “the factual underpinnings of the broadcast were true.”
In the opinion, the court recognized the “broad First Amendment rights” enjoyed by a cable news network, even when its presentation might be questionable. “Although the Fox News telecast may not have been ‘fair and balanced,’ it did not have the defamatory meaning alleged by plaintiffs and thus is not actionable,” the court held.
The dissenting justice insisted that the most reasonable reading of the “manhunt” caption was that it referred to a search conducted by law enforcement.