Judge Dismisses Part of Laurie Fine's Libel Lawsuit Against ESPN

Bernie Fine Syracuse Basketball - H 2011
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Bernie Fine Syracuse Basketball - H 2011 

On Monday, ESPN knocked out part of a lawsuit that contends that it libeled Laurie Fine, the wife of former assistant Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine.

The lawsuit came in the wake of national attention paid to the the sexual proclivities of collegiate athletic coaches. In 2011, Penn State's Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing young boys at the university. Soon after, the spotlight shifted to Bernie Fine upon allegations that the coach had molested two former ball boys.

The network knew about the allegations for nine years but only reported it in 2011. Fine was put on administrative leave after ESPN's Outside the Lines aired the allegations.

STORY: Why ESPN Sat on Explosive Syracuse Tapes for Nearly 10 Years

Last May, Laurie Fine filed a libel lawsuit.

In her lawsuit, Fine said that ESPN and a couple of Outside the Lines reporters "spitefully destroyed [her] reputation in an attempt to capitalize financially in the tragic wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal."

Most of her claims involved being accused of creating a space at the Fine household in which children could be sexually molested in secret -- and for knowing what was happening. Fine says it's all untrue. And a big part of the case involves a tape-recorded phone conversation from 2002 between Fine and accuser Bobby Davis, which Fine says in her lawsuit was "doctored" and "highly edited" for publication.

Whether ESPN took the tape "out of context" will be addressed in the future.

On Monday, a judge addressed another aspect of Fine's lawsuit -- that she was libeled in a report that suggested she slept with Syracuse basketball players.

This libel claim emanated from another libel claim.

Shortly after the Outside the Lines report aired, Syracuse basketball head coach Jim Boeheim stood up for his embattled assistant, Bernie Fine. "You know how much money is going to be involved in civil suits?" he asked at the time. "I'd say about $50 million. That's what this is about. Money."

In December, 2011, Davis and another former ball boy sued Boeheim for defamation for making such a statement. In the case, before it was dismissed, Davis filed an affidavit that among other things, accused Laurie Fine of having sexual relationships with players.

ESPN picked up an AP story about the sex allegation and then published another article about a hearing where the judge in that case decided it wasn't relevant.

In her complaint, Fine said ESPN's coverage here was "libel per se, because, among other things, it conveys to the average right-thinking reader the totally untrue contention that Plaintiff was passively and/or otherwise involved in the serious sexual misconduct of Davis while he was a young child. By stating that Plaintiff had sex with members of the Syracuse basketball team, the average, right-thinking reader reasonably concludes that Plaintiff was more likely to be involved or complicit in Davis' other accusations of sexual abuse."

In a ruling on Monday, U.S. District Court judge Lawrence Kahn dismisses this claim because the allegedly libelous statements came from judicial proceedings. And the judge says it didn't matter that the statements made were not "of and concerning" the lawsuit against Boeheim.

He writes, "The Affidavit and Hearing articles are fair and true reports of a judicial proceeding and therefore cannot form the basis of a libel claim, because they are protected by New York Civil Rights Law §74."

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner