Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson has sued Fox News and media personality Jeanine Pirro, alleging she defamed him while discussing a lawsuit brought against the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mckesson alleges that Pirro made “false and defamatory statements” claiming he directed other protesters to commit violence that resulted in a police officer getting struck in the face with a rock, according to a lawsuit filed in New York on Tuesday.
“Pirro’s statements are untrue and further a narrative that I, and other activists, engage in violent protest,” Mckesson said in message to The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday.
Mckesson lives in Baltimore, previously ran for mayor and served as the head of human resources for Baltimore's public schools. He left his position in Baltimore in July, focusing since then on his popular podcast, “Pod Save the People,” and on social justice activism.
“I take statements that portray untrue statements about me seriously,” he said. Mckesson said he’s already received death threats, including one on Twitter in 2015 during a screening of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” documentary at the Charles Theatre. The theater was evacuated, and Baltimore police were called to investigate.
The complaint says the statements made by Pirro “are false, and were either known to be false by Defendant Pirro or were made with reckless disregard for whether they were true.” The complaint said the statements have damaged Mckesson’s reputation and endangered his safety, and requests an unspecified amount in damages. It also notes the large audience reach that Fox’s morning show “Fox & Friends” has.
“Given the exposure made to an audience of 1.7 million people on the nature of DeRay’s work, the damage to his reputation is extremely significant,” said Mckesson’s attorney Matthew D. Melewski in an interview.
A spokeswoman for Fox News said Wednesday that Pirro’s statements are protected speech.
“We informed Mr. Mckesson’s counsel that our commentary was fully protected under the First Amendment and the privilege for reports of judicial proceedings. We will defend this case vigorously,” the statement said.
Pirro’s comments came during the Sept. 29 “Fox & Friends” show discussing the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an unnamed police officer injured during protests in Baton Rouge in July 2016. The protests were in response to the fatal shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling, a black man, by a white police officer.
The day before the show, a U.S. District Judge in Louisiana dismissed the officer’s case because he found that Black Lives Matter is a social movement, not an entity that can be sued. Judge Brian Jackson said the officer’s lawsuit "utterly failed to state a plausible claim" and instead launched a "confused attack" against Black Lives Matter and others, including Mckesson, a leader in the movement.
During the morning news show, Pirro allegedly defamed Mckesson, saying he incited violence, according to Mckesson’s lawsuit.
“And in this particular case, DeRay Mckesson, the organizer, actually was directing people, was directing the violence,” Pirro said, which was false, according to the complaint.
After the segment, Mckesson wrote a letter to Fox News, asking for a retraction, but the complaint said the network refused because it said Pirro was reading from the judge’s order dismissing the Black Lives Matter lawsuit. Pirro did not respond to the letter.
Pirro has said she was referring to court documents. In response to news reports, she said on Twitter, that “I quoted 2 paragraphs from court docs,” the complaint said.
But the complaint said she wasn’t quoting court documents and noted that the judge ruled against the officer.
During the September news segment, Pirro also discussed the judge who dismissed the case, the complaint said. The clip then cut to a picture of Jackson, who is black, the complaint said, and then Pirro noted that Jackson was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Pirro then discussed money that was awarded to protesters who sued Baton Rouge officials after they were arrested during the same protests when the officer was injured, the complaint said. At the end of the “Fox and Friends” segment, Pirro noted that the police officer’s case was dismissed, and that the case, brought by McKesson and other protesters, was eligible for settlement, according to the complaint.
“The problem is when you have federal judges who make decisions on politics — activist judges — not on the facts,” Pirro said, according to the complaint. “You’ve got a police officer who was injured, he was injured at the direction of DeRay Mckesson, DeRay Mckesson walks away with a hundred thousand dollars, for an organization that is amorphous, we got a problem in this country,” she said, according to the complaint.
Mckesson was among 185 arrested during the protests. He and others filed a class-action filing, claiming police violated protesters' civil rights in arresting them. Another judge ruled in favor of the protesters, including Mckesson, and said they were eligible for payments ranging from $500 to $1,000.