Fox News suffered a significant setback on Friday in its defense against a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit that claims it lied about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
A judge in Delaware Superior Court said the case, brought by Dominion Voting Systems, was strong enough to conclude that Fox hosts and guests had repeatedly made false claims about Dominion machines and their supposed role in a fictitious plot to steal the election from President Donald J. Trump.
“The evidence developed in this civil proceeding,” Judge Eric M. Davis wrote, demonstrates that it “is CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true.”
Judge Davis said the case would proceed to trial, for a jury to weigh whether Fox spread false claims about Dominion while knowing that they were untrue, and to determine any damages. The trial is expected to begin April 17.
But he rejected much of the heart of Fox’s defense: that the First Amendment protected the statements made on its air alleging that the election had somehow been stolen. Fox has argued that it was merely reporting on allegations of voter fraud as inherently newsworthy and that any statements its hosts made about supposed fraud were covered under the Constitution as opinion.
“It appears oxymoronic to call the statements ‘opinions’ while also asserting the statements are newsworthy allegations and/or substantially accurate reports of official proceedings,” Judge Davis said.
For example, in a “Lou Dobbs Tonight” broadcast on Nov. 24, 2020, Mr. Dobbs said: “I think many Americans have given no thought to electoral fraud that would be perpetrated through electronic voting; that is, these machines, these electronic voting companies including Dominion, prominently Dominion, at least in the suspicions of a lot of Americans.”
The judge said that statement was asserting a fact, rather than an opinion, about Dominion.
Under defamation law, Dominion must prove that Fox either knowingly spread false information or did so with reckless disregard for the truth, meaning that it had reason to believe that the information it broadcast was false.
Numerous legal experts have said that Dominion has presented ample evidence that Fox hosts and producers were aware of what they were doing.
RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor and First Amendment scholar at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, said the judge had signaled that he disagreed with many of Fox’s arguments.
“The case will head to the jury with several of the key elements already decided in Dominion’s favor,” Ms. Anderson Jones said.
Dominion, in a statement, said: “We are gratified by the court’s thorough ruling soundly rejecting all of Fox’s arguments and defenses, and finding as a matter of law that their statements about Dominion are false. We look forward to going to trial.”
A spokeswoman for Fox said the case “is and always has been about the First Amendment protections of the media’s absolute right to cover the news.”
“Fox will continue to fiercely advocate for the rights of free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of these proceedings,” she added.
Both parties had asked for the judge to grant summary judgment, meaning to rule in their favor on the merits of the evidence that each side had produced so far, including at a pretrial hearing last week. Dominion has argued that texts and emails between Fox executives and hosts proved that many knew the claims were false but put them on the air anyway.
Fox has accused Dominion of cherry-picking evidence and argued that the First Amendment protected it because it was reporting on newsworthy allegations.
In Friday’s decision, Judge Davis said damages, if they were awarded to Dominion, would be calculated by the jury. Lawyers for Fox pushed back on Dominion’s claim for $1.6 billion in previous hearings, arguing that the company had overstated its valuation and failed to show it suffered any loss of business.
Fox has argued that Fox Corp, the parent company of Fox News, was not involved in the broadcasting of the allegedly defamatory statements. In the decision, the judge left that question up to a jury.
The case is the highest profile so far to test whether allies of former President Donald J. Trump would be held accountable for spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election. The prosecutions of those who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, have mostly been focused on petty criminals and low-level agitators.
Major revelations have been buried in the suit’s filings. Hundreds of pages of internal emails and messages in the weeks around the 2020 election, some of which were redacted, showed that many Fox executives and hosts did not believe the false claims of voter fraud they were broadcasting and made derogatory comments about Mr. Trump and his legal advisers.
Tucker Carlson, the popular prime-time host, described Mr. Trump as “a demonic force, a destroyer” in a text with his producer. In a separate message to the host Laura Ingraham, Mr. Carlson said Sidney Powell, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, was lying about the fraud claims, but “our viewers are good people and they believe it.”
The trove of messages also revealed the panic inside Fox News in the weeks after the election. Leaders including Suzanne Scott, the network’s chief executive, and Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of its parent company, fretted about angering viewers who felt the network had betrayed Mr. Trump when it correctly called Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
As some of those viewers left for more right-wing channels like Newsmax in the days after the election, Ms. Scott told Mr. Murdoch in an email that she intended to “pivot but keep the audience who loves us and trusts us.” She added: “We need to make sure they know we aren’t abandoning them and still champions for them.”
Mr. Murdoch acknowledged in his deposition that some Fox News hosts had “endorsed” the false fraud claims. He added that he “would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight.”
The suit has also had a recent complicating factor: A former Fox News producer filed her own lawsuits against the company this month, claiming that the network’s lawyers coerced her into giving a misleading testimony in the Dominion case. Fox News fired the producer, Abby Grossberg, who worked for the host Maria Bartiromo and Mr. Carlson, after she filed the complaints.
On Monday, Ms. Grossberg’s lawyers filed her errata sheet, which witnesses use to correct mistakes in their depositions. She revised her comments to say she did not trust the producers at Fox with whom she worked because they were “activists, not journalists, and impose their political agendas on the programming.”
Judge Davis’s ruling sets the stage for one of the most consequential media trials in recent history, with the possibility that Fox executives and hosts could be called to testify in person.
In several recent hearings, the judge indicated that he was losing patience with Fox lawyers and their objections to Dominion’s efforts to introduce evidence into the record. And he said on Friday that he believed Dominion was correct in asserting that Fox had not “conducted good-faith, disinterested reporting.”