CORRECTED: Trump Camp Drops Defamation Suit Over Virus 'Hoax' Ad

By Christopher Cole
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Law360 (November 16, 2020, 3:45 PM EST) -- President Donald Trump's reelection campaign dropped a defamation suit in Wisconsin federal court accusing an NBC affiliate and political action committee of running an ad that falsely quoted him as referring to the coronavirus pandemic as a "hoax."

The Trump camp filed suit in the heat of the presidential race after station owner Northland Television LLC aired a spot from progressive group Priorities USA Action that, according to the campaign, used a "manufactured" quote that implied he called the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax. The campaign asserted that the "hoax" the president was referring to was his critics' allegation that he had handled the pandemic poorly.

A stipulation of dismissal, filed Friday by all three parties with a federal judge, gets rid of the litigation but does not include an explicit admission that any side was wrong. The papers inform the judge that each has agreed to pay its own costs, attorney fees and expenses.

A lawyer for the station characterized the agreement to end the case as a victory.

"Trying to chill the First Amendment rights of local broadcasters should never be in a political candidate's playbook. WJFW is pleased the Trump campaign, having lost the election, has finally come to that conclusion," the attorney, Charles Tobin of Ballard Spahr LLP, told Law360 in an email Monday.

Representatives for the Trump campaign and the PAC did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

In the April suit, Donald J. Trump for President Inc. claimed the NBC affiliate should not have broadcast super PAC Priorities USA's ad, which the station knew, or should have known, used digital technology to "manufacture" a "blatantly false statement that was never said by" Trump.

The statement in the ad, "The coronavirus, this is their new hoax," was edited in such a way that viewers were left unclear on what or whom Trump was referring to, the suit claimed.

Friday's court filing said the parties "intend this stipulation for dismissal and release to foreclose the assertion by the plaintiff and its candidate in any court or forum of any claims made or that could have been made against the [defendants] in connection with advertising arising out of the 2020 election and, specifically, the advertisement placed at issue."

The campaign filed an initial state complaint in Price County, Wisconsin, on April 13, with the only defendant being Northland Television LLC, which does business as WJFW-NBC. The complaint was removed to federal court two weeks later, and the Democratic group behind the ad was added as a defendant June 18.

"Absent the deceitful alteration of the audio, it is clear that 'this' does not refer to the coronavirus and instead refers directly to the Democrats' politicization of the pandemic," the campaign alleged, also claiming the station "perpetrated a fraud on the public by recklessly broadcasting PUSA's defamatory and false advertisement."

Trump's campaign later said Priorities USA — a major backer of the campaigns of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — also belonged in the suit as the ad's sponsor.

The Trump campaign is represented by Eric M. McLeod and Lisa M. Lawless of Husch Blackwell LLP.

WJFW is represented by Charles D. Tobin and Maxwell S. Mishkin of Ballard Spahr LLP and Brady C. Williamson and Mike B. Wittenwyler of Godfrey & Kahn SC.

Priorities USA is represented by Marc Erik Elias, Ezra Woolf Reese, David L. Anstaett and Brandon M. Lewis of Perkins Coie LLP.

The suit is Donald J. Trump for President Inc. v. Northland Television LLC et al., case number 3:20-cv-00385, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

--Additional reporting by Julia Arciga, Nadia Dreid and Dave Simpson. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the nature of the Nov. 13 filing. The error has been corrected.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. v. Northland Television, LLC


Case Number

3:20-cv-00385

Court

Wisconsin Western

Nature of Suit

Assault Libel & Slander

Judge

William M. Conley

Date Filed

April 27, 2020

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