Former Va. lieutenant governor sues New York Public Radio for defamation

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© Andrew Popper 2018

Former Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax filed a defamation lawsuit Saturday against New York Public Radio over an episode of The Takeaway that discussed allegations of sexual assault made against him by two accusers. 

In the suit, Fairfax alleges that the show presented as fact “intentionally fabricated” statements made by Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson, who in 2019 went public with charges that Fairfax had assaulted them in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Fairfax, a Democrat who served as lieutenant governor from 2018 until earlier this year, has denied the accusations and called them politically motivated.

The former lieutenant governor’s complaint focuses on an episode of The Takeaway that aired Aug. 6, 2021, and featured Tyson as a guest. Melissa Harris-Perry, now the show’s host, was then serving as interim host. Fairfax’s complaint alleges that NYPR and Harris-Perry did not ask “any investigative questions of either Watson or Tyson … to probe the truth of their statements and accusations against Fairfax or to test their credibility.”

While the show did note that Fairfax had denied the allegations, that “did virtually nothing to remove the sting of the lengthy recitation of the false accusations,” reads the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The complaint alleges defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Fairfax is seeking compensatory damages of not less than $35 million, as well as punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and “an injunction prohibiting the Defendants from disseminating, distributing, or publishing any footage or statements that are judicially determined to be defamatory.” The complaint demands a jury trial.

A NYPR spokesperson told Current that Fairfax’s complaint “is completely without merit.”

In explaining why NYPR is subject to jurisdiction in a Virginia court, the complaint said the station “has contracted to supply goods or services in Virginia, has four affiliate television stations in Virginia, and generates income from its business in Virginia.” NYPR does not have four affiliate television stations in the state.

Fairfax also took CBS to court for defamation after the network aired interviews with his accusers in 2019. Last year, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss that lawsuit, finding that Fairfax did not meet the standard for a defamation claim involving a public official.

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