Judge rejects NPR’s motion to dismiss defamation lawsuit

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A federal judge denied Wednesday NPR’s attempt to dismiss a $57 million defamation lawsuit.

Texas investor Ed Butowsky filed the suit in 2018, claiming that NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik made false statements about him in online articles and on Twitter. The suit also accused Folkenflik of civil conspiracy for working with a source to “publish and republish false and defamatory statements that harmed” Butowsky, the suit said.

Folkenflik’s reporting cited Butowsky as a source of a conspiracy theory about the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Fox News had retracted a 2017 story suggesting Rich’s murder may have been in retaliation for DNC emails that were leaked to WikiLeaks. 

The suit claims that NPR published more than a dozen instances of false or defamatory remarks in “no less than six” articles. Among them is an August 2017 story in which Folkenflik said Fox News and Butowsky “worked in concert under the watchful eye of the White House to concoct a story” about Rich’s death. Folkenflik was covering a defamation lawsuit filed against Fox News and Butowsky for the retracted Fox story. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit.

In Wednesday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant agreed with a magistrate judge’s earlier ruling not to grant NPR’s motion to dismiss Butowsky’s lawsuit. Mazzant dismissed several of NPR’s objections to the magistrate judge’s ruling, including that Folkenflik was merely reporting allegations from the lawsuit against Butowsky and Fox. 

Mazzant wrote that Butowsky’s suit plausibly demonstrates that NPR’s reports “were not fair, true, and impartial accounts” of the lawsuit against Fox News and Butowsky. He added that the organization of NPR’s reports “combined with the speculative commentary imply wrongdoing.”

Mazzant also disagreed with NPR’s argument that Butowsky is a public figure, which would demand a higher burden of proof for a plaintiff to prove defamation than a private individual. 

Mazzant said he found that at this stage in proceedings, “the facts do not show” that Butowsky played “anything more than a tangential role in the controversy surrounding the Seth Rich investigation.” 

At this stage of the case, the judge accepts “the factual allegations in the complaint as true” and views them “in the light most favorable to Plaintiff,” Mazzant wrote. 

“This is an early ruling,” NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara said in a statement to Current. “NPR stands behind its reporting and will continue to defend the lawsuit vigorously.”

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