Legal scholar Alan Dershowitz's defamation lawsuit against CNN over its coverage of former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial can continue after a judge refused the network's motion to dismiss.
Dershowitz alleged CNN provided an edited version of his remarks and a misleading narrative about his views that damaged his reputation as a scholar. He's seeking $300 million in damages, the Hollywood Reporter said Tuesday.
CNN had argued it was protected by the fair report privilege, which shields the media from reporting about government proceedings.
Dershowitz, while representing Trump in the 2020 Senate trial, was asked by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, if a president can be impeached and removed from office for taking any action motivated by a desire to be re-elected.
"Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest and, mostly you are right, your election is in the public interest, and if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment," Dershowitz said in ending a lengthy answer.
While discussing Dershowitz's response on CNN, commentator Joe Lockhart said it was "absurd" that the attorney believed a president had "license to commit crimes" if it's better for the country.
Paul Begala, who like Lockhart worked for former President Bill Clinton, agreed.
"The Dershowitz Doctrine would make presidents immune from every criminal act, so long as they could plausibly claim they did it to boost their re-election effort," Begala said. "Campaign finance laws: out the window. Bribery statutes: gone. Extortion: no more."
U.S. District Court Raag Singhal agreed with Dershowitz that a misleading presentation cancels out such a defense.
"CNN presented an abridgment of Dershowitz' answer to Senator Cruz'[s] question," Singhal wrote in his decision dated Monday. "The abridgment is not accurate, to the extent that it omitted a crucial qualification: that an illegal motive for a quid pro quo would be corrupt.
"As a result, the commentators’ statements – that Dershowitz believes a President can do anything, even commit crimes if it would help his re-election – are not based upon a fair and accurate summary of Dershowitz’ statement to the Senate.”
The judge said CNN fell short of a standard of fairness despite agreeing with the network that journalists have discretion and aren't obligated to present all information that puts its subject in a positive light.
In its motion, CNN argued there were other grounds to dismiss the complaint including that the allegedly defamatory statements were opinions and there was nothing to support actual malice.
Singhal said the statements mixed opinions with some factual foundation that could be challenged as false.
As for the malice claim, Singhal ruled there was enough at this stage, as judges in federal court on a motion to dismiss must accept what’s pled as true.
Dershowitz alleged CNN had knowledge of his qualified views on the topic of unlawful actions by a president.
"Whether the evidence adduced will ultimately satisfy Dershowitz' burden of proving actual malice by clear and convincing evidence remains to be seen," the judge wrote. "But he has alleged enough to go forward."
Dershowitz was part of the legal team defending Trump during the trial that ended with the former president’s Feb. 5 acquittal.
Dershowitz, a retired Harvard University law professor, filed suit against CNN in September.
The lawsuit said CNN painted Dershowitz as an "intellectual who had lost his mind" by re-airing a clip of his comments during the impeachment trial that omitted a portion of his statement.
"Following the airing of that clip over and over again, the hosts, together with their panel guests, including CNN employees and paid commentators, exploded into a one-sided and false narrative that Professor Dershowitz believes and argued that as long as the President believes his re-election is in the public interest, that he could do anything at all – including illegal acts – and be immune from impeachment," the lawsuit said.
"The very notion of that was preposterous and foolish on its face, and that was the point: to falsely paint Professor Dershowitz as a constitutional scholar and intellectual who had lost his mind."
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