Fox-Dominion is one of the 2020 election defamation claims 2023

The newly resolved defamation complaint by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News may be the most high-profile lawsuit regarding lies and conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, but more than a dozen similar suits are now proceeding through the judicial system.

After a conservative media site falsely accused an Erie, Pa., postmaster of altering mail-in ballots to benefit Democratic candidate Joe Biden, he was harassed and evicted. The 2000 Mules filmmakers falsely accused a Georgia voter of improperly depositing numerous ballots into a drop box. Two right-wing media sites and Rudy Giuliani falsely accused two Georgia election workers of ballot fraud.

Fox News in New York faces an even greater $2.7 billion lawsuit from another voting machine vendor. These lawsuits target conservative politicians and media outlets, including former President Donald Trump, for electoral lying.

Credible defamation cases flooded the 2020 election.

Legal experts believe defamation prosecutions are rare due to the difficulty of proving someone lied about items they knew or should have known were incorrect. However, the 2020 election’s misleading narratives have flooded the courts with credible cases.

RonNell Andersen Jones, a media law professor and former journalist at the University of Utah, thinks they might construct a body of case law to enforce substantial sanctions for harassing or lying about elections and the individuals who manage them.

“What we might see is that the collective whole makes a difference in a way that individual suits cannot,” Andersen Jones adds. “It’s only in this new era of the apparent deliberate creation of known lies for politics or profit that we get some cases that put us in a place where the evidence body is deep and broad enough that these cases have a chance of succeeding.”

Ordinary people have also struggled to afford legal battles against media organizations and celebrities.

“There’s a group of people taking advantage of this dynamic to flood the news and the world with deceptions. “They’re amplifying and fabricating lies for personal and political gain,” says Protect Democracy attorney Sara Chimene-Weiss.

We believe that a successful democracy requires a shared reality and set of truths. “That’s our goal,” adds Chimene-Weiss.

In some circumstances, filing these suits seems to have yielded instant consequences. After Smartmatic’s $2.7 billion slander claim against Fox, Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business show was canceled.

Other cases were settled. In 2021, Newsmax settled with former Dominion Voting Systems employee Eric Coomer for false allegations that he rigged voting machines. Fox News resolved a lawsuit against Dobbs and guest Sidney Powell for allegedly linking a Venezuelan businessman to voter-fraud conspiracy theories this month.

Defamation lawsuits’ limits

Andersen Jones thinks defamation cases like this can help keep public conversations grounded in truth, but only for election lies targeting individuals or companies. “Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” she calls them.

“Our information ecosystem makes selling lies economical. “Defamation law can only do so much,” says University of Florida Levin College of legislation constitutional law professor Lyrissa Lidsky. “Partly, this knowledge comes from the supply side. Consider demand. How much are we willingly absorbing false information because it’s more enjoyable than genuine knowledge?”

Fox contended in the Dominion case that Trump’s election theft claims were newsworthy. Media defendants like the firm claim First Amendment protection.

Lidsky emphasizes that defamation law is difficult, balancing free expression and factual information. It doesn’t provide the unvarnished truth many Americans want. Lidsky believes headlines can portray opaque settlements like Dominion’s with Fox or legal technicalities as proof of an electoral lie or other false narrative.

She says one risk is that defamation lawsuits can be weaponized against people who raise factually grounded criticisms, which is why defamation law has always sought to balance protecting reputations and free speech.

Rich and powerful people can easily sue for defamation. “You can inflict a lot of pain on someone just by suing them,” adds Lidsky. “You have to be careful that defamation isn’t used as a tool to suppress free speech and criticism, particularly of government officials.”

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