Fox will have to go to trial to defend its coverage of the 2020 US presidential election, a judge ruled on Friday, denying the cable network’s attempt to prevent a $1.6bn defamation case brought by voting machine maker Dominion from being decided by a jury.

In a 130-page opinion, Judge Eric Davis of Delaware state court denied motions by Fox News and its parent Fox Corporation, but agreed with Dominion’s contention that the claims made about its devices — that they were rigged to steal votes from then-president Donald Trump — were false.

“The evidence developed in this civil proceeding demonstrates that is CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true,” Davis wrote.

He added a jury in the trial set to begin on April 17 would decide on whether Fox acted with “actual malice” or “reckless disregard”, in repeatedly broadcasting the false accusations against Dominion, and whether the company suffered damages as a result.

Earlier this week, Dominion released a proposed witness list that if accepted by the court would entail Fox chair Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan being questioned live during the trial, as well as Fox primetime stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

In a sworn deposition in January, Rupert Murdoch told lawyers he believed some Fox anchors went further than merely broadcasting the false election claims and instead “endorsed” conspiracy theories being pushed by the Trump campaign.

He added Fox “did more than simply host” guests such as Trump’s lawyer Sidney Powell, a proponent of false claims that Dominion machines were rigged, but rather gave them a “platform”. Murdoch also testified he had “seen no evidence that [Dominion] rigged anything” and that he believed the election “was not stolen”.

Lawyers for Fox had argued the network was reporting on the allegations made by a sitting president, and that such statements were protected by the constitution’s first amendment. However, Davis cited the New York state court of appeals in concluding that “accusations of criminal activity, even in the form of opinion, are not constitutionally protected”.

Reacting to the judge’s decision, Dominion said: “We are gratified by the court’s thorough ruling soundly rejecting all of Fox’s arguments and defences, and finding as a matter of law that their statements about Dominion are false. We look forward to going to trial.”

In a statement, Fox said: “This case is and always has been about the first amendment protections of the media’s absolute right to cover the news.” 

It added that Fox would “continue to fiercely advocate for the rights of free speech and a free press as we move into the next phase of these proceedings”.

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