ESPN Demands End to Libel Lawsuit Over Sex Abuse Story

A 2011 report about an assistant coach at Syracuse University changed the network's guidelines on reporting about criminal allegations.
Nick Caito/ESPN Images

ESPN has asked a judge to deliver a judgment in its favor in a 3-year-old defamation lawsuit brought by Laurie Fine, the wife of former assistant Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine.

The lawsuit focuses on an ESPN's Outside the Lines report addressing allegations that Fine sexually molested children — and that his wife knew it was happening in their household. The segment that aired in 2011 also featured a tape-recorded phone conversation from 2002 between Ms. Fine and accuser Bobby Davis, which she originally argued in her lawsuit was "doctored" and "highly edited" for publication.

Now, ESPN is telling a judge that the plaintiff's "ever-shifting stories" require a halt to the lawsuit.

"Mrs. Fine has gone from claiming the Tape was doctored, to conceding it was authentic, to swearing that she was not discussing sex, to conceding that she was, but supposedly with a 17-year-old," states a memorandum in support of a dismissal.

ESPN says any judgment in Fine's favor would "make a mockery of the First Amendment."

For her part, in a brief opposing summary judgment, Fine says that ESPN had no basis for asserting she had child abuse concerns and attacks the network's reportorial methods, saying among other things that reporters should have listened to an FBI agent about the importance of reviewing the age of consent in New York.

Perhaps of note, she produces ESPN's editorial guidelines that seems to suggest that at least until 2011, it was the network's policy not to report allegations of criminal activity unless a news subject was actually charged with a crime. ESPN considered this to be "defamatory" in its old guidelines with exceptions for instances when authorities openly stating a coming charge, past criminal conduct by a news subject, attorneys coming forward to opening speak about impending charges, or indications that allegations would affect something on the field of play.

At a December 8, 2011 meeting, ESPN staffers discussed the Fine report with executive Patrick Stiegman stating that the network "lowered the bar."

According to Fine's brief, "Realizing the trouble these Guidelines might present in litigation, ESPN removed this language altogether and now insists the Guidelines don’t constitute 'hard and fast rules.' "

In his own declaration in the case, Stiegman attempted to clarify that when he said ESPN hadn't followed guidelines, he was referring to initial reports about Fine and didn't believe there was any problems with the accuracy of the report. He also acknowledged that the December 2011 meeting and consideration of the Fine matter caused ESPN to revise its guidelines.

Beginning in 2012 it became fine to report on criminal activities, even if formal charges were not filed, so long as ESPN reporters had "independent reporting from one or more credible sources that justifies making the story public." The soft policy also instructs its reporters to verify information, not simply rely on other media reports.

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