TAMPA, May 26—A Florida judge has refused to grant the protective order sought by Fox Television as it defends itself against a civil suit by two former reporters who say they were fired for refusing to broadcast false and misleading news reports.
It was the broadcaster’s second effort to block discovery of facts about the case. The defendant’s attorney failed to appear at the first hearing her office scheduled May 4. A second hearing was re-scheduled after plaintiffs set and took the first deposition in the case last week.
In a brief hearing before circuit judge Manuel Menendez, Jr., Patricia Anderson representing Fox argued that her client should be protected from the trouble and expense of further depositions pending a ruling on a motion to dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds. Her argument on that motion is set for June 22.
Ms. Anderson argued even if the fired reporters’ claims are all true, no court or jury could ever find in their favor because to do so would substitute the court’s editorial judgement for that of the broadcaster. She claims the First Amendment prevents any court or jury from making editorial judgements.
Attorney John Chamblee, representing plaintiffs Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, told the judge the case is not about news judgement. Citing several legal precedents, Chamblee said the whistleblower claim is about the plaintiff’s being fired for refusing to violate the law by knowingly broadcasting false and misleading news reports.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs are entitled to probe into the editorial process when it is necessary to prove a valid civil claim such as libel or defamation. Chamblee said the discovery of information about what happened with the story was crucial to proving the plaintiff’s whistleblower claim.
The judge asked both attorneys how long they expected a trial on the case would take if pre-trial motions do not result in a dismissal of the suit.
Ms. Anderson estimated a two-month trial. Mr. Chamblee said he would expect a trial could be conducted in two weeks.
The 25-minute hearing ended with Judge Menendez denying
the petition as premature.