April 4, 2014
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A federal judge has denied a request by ESPN to dismiss a libel suit filed by the wife of former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine.
Laurie Fine accused the sports cable television network of libel and slander in its coverage of child-molesting allegations against her husband. The lawsuit claims the network’s coverage was grossly irresponsible.
ESPN’s lawyers argued the reporting by Mark Schwarz and producer Arthur Berko shouldn’t be the subject of a libel suit because the information was based on official proceedings, including police department documents.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn indicated he could not determine if ESPN’s reporting was “fair and true,” allowing the lawsuit to proceed.
“Laurie Fine is exceedingly pleased with the decision,” Fine’s lawyer, Pittsburgh-based Lawrence Fisher, said Tuesday. “ESPN sought to dismiss the case and claimed its reporting was fair and true. What the court held was they were wrong.”
ESPN spokesman David Scott said the network stands by its reporting.
Bernie Fine was fired in November 2011, days after the broadcasts aired. The 68-year-old Fine was not charged and has maintained his innocence.
In her lawsuit, Laurie Fine says the network ruined her life by broadcasting salacious reports that she knew her husband abused boys and that she had sex with one of the boys. She accuses ESPN of reporting the allegations against her husband in a bid to boost ratings as the Penn State sex-abuse scandal was unfolding. She also notes the network had already done extensive reporting into claims made by ball boy Bobby Davis in 2003 and decided not to broadcast information then because it couldn’t find evidence to back up his claims.
ESPN broke the story of two former Syracuse ball boys, Davis and his stepbrother, Michael Lang, who claimed they were molested by Bernie Fine decades ago. The lawsuit says the network had serious doubts about the story Davis was telling them, but broadcast it anyway.
One of the keys to the suit is a 47-minute audiotape of a phone conversation with Laurie Fine that Davis said he made in 2002 in which she says she “knew everything” that went on. When the suit was filed in May 2012, Fisher said the recording was doctored, selectively edited, reported out of context and did not definitively contain Laurie Fine’s voice.
In the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, Fisher says the network knew from its earlier reporting that the tape was “entirely speculative” and “unreliable” but broadcast it anyway.
A trial had a tentative start set for November, but that likely will be rescheduled.
Bernie Fine also sued ESPN for its broadcasts, but dropped his defamation lawsuit last July. He voluntarily filed a notice of dismissal, although both he and his attorneys believed his legal claim had merit.