The lawyer representing Lewiston School Superintendent Leon Levesque said Saturday that Levesque is suing the Fox News Network “for what they dragged him through,” and to deter “irresponsible and reckless” reporting.
Lawyer Bernard J. Kubetz of Bangor said he fully supports the right of the media to report the news, “but when a broadcast giant like Fox acts this irresponsibly and reckless without regard to the impact it can have, there should be an opportunity for a jury to hear what happened.”
Levesque is suing Fox News Network and two of its anchors for libel and slander as part of a civil complaint. The complaint is seeking damages in excess of $75,000, and was filed by Levesque, not in his role as superintendent for the Lewiston School Department.
Levesque said Saturday he would not comment on the lawsuit because his lawyer advised against that.
His lawyer called the case a compelling one.
“It appears to me that Fox News acted in a grossly irresponsible way and took some information that was really not very plausible, did not do any substantial fact checking, and put it out as hard news,” Kubetz said.
Fox News either broadcast false statements knowing they were false, or in reckless disregard of the truth, he said.
The lawsuit was filed June 22 in U.S. District Court in Portland. The defendants – Fox News and anchors Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade – had not responded as of Saturday, Kubetz said.
A receptionist who answered a call to Fox News in New York on Saturday refused to forward a call to anyone at Fox, referring the Sun Journal to the Fox Web page. E-mails to Fox went unanswered.
How a ham became a ham sandwich
On April 19 the Sun Journal published a story about a Lewiston Middle School student who was suspended after he left a ham steak on a table where Somali students were having lunch, knowing ham is offensive to Muslims. The Sun Journal later was told it was a ham bone leftover from an Easter meal.
In the story Levesque said the incident did not reflect the moral values of the school. “We need to take a look at this and review how a careless act is degrading and causes hurt to other people,” Levesque said. “All our students should feel welcome and safe in our schools.”
A parody of the story was displayed April 23 on the Web site Associated Content. The parody changed the ham steak to a ham sandwich. The Associated Content story quoted Levesque saying ridiculous things he never uttered, including that, “Children have got to learn that ham is not a toy, and that there are consequences for being nonchalant about where you put a sandwich.”
Kubetz said he suspects Fox saw the fake story and aired it without fact-checking.
“Clearly if they checked with the Sun Journal, or the Lewiston School Department, with Leon Levesque, the Attorney General’s Office in Maine, or Nicholas Plagmen who wrote the fake story, Fox would have discovered it was not a real news story.”
Instead, “Fox and Friends” anchors Doocy and Kilmeade aired the story three or four times, each time assuring viewers, “We’ve checked this out and it’s true,” according to Kubetz.
Doocy said on the broadcast that they were “not making this up” and that he had “looked it up on a couple of different Web sites up there, from local papers.”
Doocy also said, “I can understand that (rolling a pig’s head into a mosque) is a hate crime. But for a kid to put a sandwich on a table, that is crazy. Here’s our question this hour: a ham sandwich – is it a hate crime or is it lunch?”
Another Doocy comment was that Levesque, “who looks as though he’s going to the hilt with this, says it’s akin to making these kids feel like they’re being shot at back in Mogadishu and being starved to death.”
After the Fox anchors assured viewers what they reported was “100 percent true, they then went so far to invite viewer feedback and comment,” Kubetz said.
The “ham is not a toy” fictitious comment may make someone grin, but the Fox broadcast did personal and professional harm to Levesque, Kubetz said.
“Anyone who Googles him is going to be immediately faced with this so-called ham sandwich incident. It makes him look foolish.”
After Fox aired the broadcasts, Levesque was overwhelmed for days with phone calls and hate mail. Threatening calls were made to his home, which made Levesque and his wife uncomfortable. Based on Kubetz’s review, most of the hate e-mail “were from across the United States,” not from Lewiston or Maine.
After Levesque asked Fox News to correct the story, Fox did a brief on-air retraction, but it was unsatisfactory, Kubetz said.
Levesque deserves a fair compensation “for what they dragged him through,” Kubetz said. He’s hoping suing Fox for libel and slander will serve as a deterrent, “so no other innocent person is subjected to this.”
He expects a jury trial will be held in Portland in 10 months to a year.
Kubetz is with Eaton Peabody in Bangor. He represents some media outlets, including the Bangor Daily News. He also specializes as a defamation lawyer.