SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — A judge found that ESPN did nothing malicious in its reporting of claims that a former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach sexually abused two ball boys decades ago and his wife had a sexual relationship with one of them.
The libel case came down to whether the wife, Laurie Fine, was a public or private figure. As a public figure she would have to show malice in the 2012 lawsuit she filed against the network, but as a private figure she would have to show a lesser legal standard of gross irresponsibility.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David E. Peebles threw out the lawsuit Friday after concluding Fine was a public figure because she had served as a radio personality, had easy access to the media and invited public attention to herself and her views about protecting at-risk youth.
Peebles dismissed defamation claims against ESPN Inc. and an ESPN reporter and producer.
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Fine is married to Bernie Fine, a one-time assistant Syracuse coach who was fired by the university in November 2011 after allegations of child molestation against him surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State. He was never charged and has adamantly denied wrongdoing.
Her lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for a comment.
ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said: “We feel vindicated by the court’s decision.”
In ruling, Peebles cited “an abundance of evidence in the record strongly suggesting” Laurie Fine had engaged in sexual conduct with one of the ball boys despite her flat denial. But he added there was conflicting evidence whether she had sex with the boy and whether she knew if her husband was sexually molesting boys.
He said there was “not one shred of evidence” to suggest ESPN published stories it knew were false, and he noted ESPN has staunchly defended the truth of its stories throughout the litigation.
He said there was no evidence to show ESPN had serious reservations or doubts about the accuracy of its reporting, or reasonably should have, after a “painstakingly thorough investigation” by its employees.
The ESPN reports concerned claims by former Syracuse ball boys — Bobby Davis and his stepbrother Mike Lang — that they were abused by Bernie Fine while they were boys in the 1980s.
Davis, a ball boy for six years, said the abuse began in 1984 and occurred at the coach’s home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four.
The accusations were first aired by ESPN in November 2011, bringing scrutiny of the Syracuse team and its Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim.
Evidence included 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.
Syracuse University had its law firm investigate Davis’ claims in 2005 and said the probe found no evidence to back up the accusations.
The ruling came the same day Syracuse advanced to this year’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.