A federal judge dismissed a $66.9 million lawsuit filed by owners of a Boones Mill house over a news story that aired on ABC News in January 2022 about the impact that the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol had on the town of Rocky Mount.
The plaintiffs in the case were Crystal Minnix and her father Eugene Muse Jr., who co-own the house, which is painted with red stripes and has blue shutters decorated with white stars and was shown briefly during the news story, along with residents Carlton Minnix Jr., Linda Muse, Zachary Muse and several minors. Crystal Minnix’s Scentsy business, as well as a Boones Mill-based business she owns called Goldens Promise, were also listed as plaintiffs.
The lawsuit, which alleged defamation, negligence, and assault and endangerment, was filed against several ABC News staffers who put together the news segment headlined “Cops’ role in Jan. 6 attack divides Virginia town with ties to Confederacy.”
It also named as defendants Bridgette Craighead, the owner of EL3ven11 Beauty Lounge in Rocky Mount, and Black Lives Matter Franklin County, an organization she founded. Craighead was interviewed during the story but did not mention the Boones Mill house, which was shown for no more than 4 seconds in the story.
Immediately preceding the shot of the house, Craighead said, “It’s their land and their country and we just live in it.” In the suit, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that this is “a clear reference that white people own the land.”
Sinclair Television Group Inc., Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and WJLA-TV were also named as defendants in the suit.
In a decision entered Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski also granted a motion by attorneys for Craighead and Black Lives Matters Franklin County to have the plaintiffs pay their attorney fees and costs in the suit.
Additionally, Urbanski denied a request by the plaintiffs to return the case to Franklin County Circuit Court, where it was originally filed in late December.
In the suit, the plaintiffs claimed that among other things, the story falsely depicts residents of the house as people who support the Confederacy and former President Donald Trump and stand against or discriminate against people of color.
The ABC News story looked at how Rocky Mount residents responded after a town police officer and his supervisor were spotted at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Last August, Thomas Robertson, who was previously a police sergeant for the Rocky Mount Police Department, was sentenced to more than seven years for five felonies and one misdemeanor. Jacob Fracker, a former police officer, was sentenced to home confinement and probation for his actions related to Jan. 6.
The ABC News story also featured interviews with a number of people from Rocky Mount, including a local artist, a member of the town council and a pastor, but only Craighead was named as a defendant.
Urbanski wrote that the plaintiffs had no possibility of success on any of their claims with Craighead and Black Lives Matter Franklin County: “Beyond briefly appearing in the same segment, Craighead’s interview is utterly unconnected to the Minnix family, its members or their home.”
Additionally, he wrote that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim against the media defendants.
The judge went on to discuss a voiceover in the news story that says that Rocky Mount is “predominantly white and politically conservative.”
Even if this was interpreted to apply to the Minnix family, the judge wrote, “it is not defamatory to claim that someone is white or conservative.”
Urbanski acknowledged that the segment does incorrectly suggest that the plaintiff’s home is in Rocky Mount when it is actually located in the nearby town of Boones Mill. Although false, this statement does not contain a “defamatory sting” to harm the Minnixes’ reputation, the judge wrote.
Urbanski also maintained that the defamation claim against Craighead and Black Lives Matter Franklin County lacks “foundation in fact or law.”
“Therefore, it is appropriate to award attorney fees and costs in this case,” he wrote.
“The judge was clear … the case didn’t have any merit even against the media defendants who put the piece together,” said King Tower, a Roanoke attorney with Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black who represented Craighead and Black Lives Matter Franklin County. “Obviously, Miss Craighead had nothing to do with that, even. She just gave a quote.”
The judge said that the plaintiffs must pay attorney fees for Craighead and Black Lives Matter Franklin County under Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law; SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” Tower described it as the “statute that tries to protect people who are speaking out on matters of public importance.”
“It’s relatively new, and in the few examples of cases where it’s come up before the courts have sometimes ruled in favor of the defendant, who’s in Miss Craighead’s situation. But they’ve almost always, and possibly even always, refused to award fees because they’ve just said, ‘That’s not necessary in this case. The plaintiff had some basis for the case,” Tower explained. “So the fact that the judge here said, ‘This is different than those cases, this case had no merit at all’ … I think that’s a really unique thing about the decision.”
Lance Hale, a Roanoke attorney, and Ethan Koelsch, a Salem attorney, are listed as co-counsels for the plaintiffs. They did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. Crystal Minnix declined to comment.
Nathan Siegel, an attorney representing the media plaintiffs, also declined to comment.
Tower said he has 15 days to file to request fees and he was not yet sure what that amount would be. He did say that the money would be donated to the Franklin County NAACP,
“If we are able to collect anything, that’s the plan,” Tower said.
Larry Moore of Rocky Mount is on the chair of the legal committee of the NAACP of Franklin County. The organization had been working to find Craighead an attorney when Tower offered to represent her pro bono after reading an article about the suit in Cardinal News.
“We asked her to come to the NAACP and explain what was going on,” Moore said. “And she did. So we then decided that we would support her in any way we could, whether it was financially or through legal matters.”
Craighead, a single mother, said that before the NAACP and Tower stepped up, she had several sleepless nights worrying about how she was going to pay for a lawyer to defend herself in the case.
She found two things significant when she received the email from Tower stating he planned to represent her: that his first name was King when she always refers to others as “King” and “Queen,” and that he sent the email exactly a month after her beloved grandmother died. “I knew that came from my grandmother,” she said.
“I lived my whole life always feeling like I had to fight my own battles,” Craighead said. “And, literally, this law firm took my battle. I didn’t have to go to court. I didn’t have to see these people. They fought my battle for me. And for that I will forever be grateful for them.”
Craighead said she won’t let the fear of being sued keep her from speaking out about racism.
“I’m still going to live my truth and keep standing up for what I believe in and for others,” she said.
Al Tompkins, a member of the senior faculty at Poynter, a nonprofit media institute, who spent several decades working in broadcast news, said he wasn’t surprised the case was dismissed.
“There was just no defamation,” he said. “It’s one of those things where it’s just not even close.”
Tower said the plaintiffs have 30 days to appeal. “Obviously, we think that would be foolish, since we believe they would then be subjected to an even greater fee award when the Court of Appeals affirms this decision,” he wrote in an email.