CBS: Lt. Gov.'s libel lawsuit an effort to silence accusers

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — A broadcaster sued for defamation by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax after airing interviews from two women accusing him of sexual assault said in court papers that his lawsuit is an attempt to silence his accusers.

CBS Broadcasting Inc. asked a federal judge in Alexandria to toss out a $400 million lawsuit filed by Fairfax, characterizing the lawsuit as a "SLAPP" suit, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

In court papers filed Friday, CBS said it accurately reported the accusations against Fairfax by Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson. The CBS lawyers state that Fairfax is using the lawsuit to levy "allegations that disparage the accusers as well as his political opponents."

Fairfax, a Democrat, accused CBS News of reporting the allegations to fit a preconceived narrative that implied his guilt, and ignoring facts that would have led it to doubt the veracity of his accusers' claims. Fairfax says the sexual encounters were consensual.

Fairfax's spokeswoman, Lauren Burke, said Monday in a statement, "It should not go unnoticed that CBS does not claim the allegations by Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson aired on April 1st and 2nd are true."

She also said in the statement that CBS has been unwilling to update its reporting after Fairfax said in July that a third person was in the room during the sexual encounter between Watson and Fairfax who could corroborate Fairfax's claims of innocence.

"Since July 9, when exculpatory evidence regarding Ms. Watson's false allegation were made public, neither her attorney Nancy Erika Smith or Ms. Watson have vouched for the truthfulness of her allegation against Mr. Fairfax. They have gone radio silent," Burke said.

Watson's attorneys referred to an earlier statement they made when Fairfax first filed the defamation claim, saying, "We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court."

The accusations about events that occurred in 2000 and 2004, respectively, surfaced in February; Fairfax appeared poised to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam, who faced calls to resign over a racist yearbook photo depicting one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. In addition, Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted that he had once worn blackface, leaving all three of the state's top office holders, all Democrats, politically damaged. All three have remained in office.

Fairfax has said the accusations were part of a smear campaign by political enemies.

Fairfax has asked for law enforcement agencies to investigate the allegations so he can clear his name. Tyson and Watson have said they favor a public hearing.

In the court papers, CBS said it had an obligation, like other news organizations, to report on the allegations against a public official, and says the lawsuit falls well short of the "actual malice" standard required for a libel or defamation claim against a public figure.

A hearing on CBS' motion to dismiss has been scheduled for Dec. 6.

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