RICHMOND, Va. – A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld a ruling dismissing a defamation lawsuit filed by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax after CBS News broadcast interviews with two women who accused him of sexual assault.
In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that because Fairfax is a public official, he can seek redress for any alleged defamatory statements only if CBS published them with “actual malice,” meaning “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” The judges said Fairfax had not shown that.
The allegations against Fairfax, a Democrat, were made in early 2019 at a time when it appeared that Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam might resign after a blackface photo on his medical school yearbook page surfaced. Under Virginia law, the lieutenant governor replaces a sitting governor who resigns. The allegations against Fairfax blunted the momentum of those seeking Northam’s resignation.
Both Northam and Fairfax have remained in office, as has Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted about the same time that he had worn blackface in college.
In April 2019, “CBS This Morning” broadcast interviews with the two women who accused Fairfax, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson. Fairfax has adamantly denied the women's allegations and has said both encounters were entirely consensual. He also accused CBS of ignoring evidence that would cast doubt on their claims.
Fairfax says Tyson was friendly with him in the days and weeks after the alleged attack during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and even tried to get him to meet her mother.
In July 2019, Fairfax issued a public letter to a district attorney in North Carolina, alleging for the first time the existence of a witness who was in the room when he and Watson had their encounter. Shortly afterward, he demanded that CBS retract the interviews, and CBS refused.
Fairfax then sued CBS in federal court, alleging defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A U.S. District Court judge last year granted a request from CBS to dismiss the lawsuit.
In its ruling, the 4th Circuit panel upheld that ruling.
“Fairfax vigorously disputes the accusations made by Tyson and Watson, and we express no opinion on the truth or falsity of their claims. But even accepting Fairfax’s version of events, he has alleged nothing to suggest that CBS reported the women’s stories with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity," Judge Allison Jones Rushing wrote in the 3-0 ruling.
Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Fairfax, called the allegations “false and politically-motivated.”
“For more than two years, Mr. Fairfax has gone above and beyond to prove his innocence. In addition to repeatedly calling for law enforcement investigations, he has passed multiple lie detector tests ... and filed civil litigation to present evidence, to seek cross-examined testimony under oath and penalty of perjury and to finally obtain due process,” Burke said in a statement.
“Mr. Fairfax will continue to clear his name," she added.