A man at the centre of a conspiracy theory related to the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, has sued Fox News for defamation.
James Ray Epps filed the lawsuit on Wednesday, launching the latest legal action against the conservative media giant in connection with its coverage of the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath.
The lawsuit claims that Fox News spread a “fantastical story” about Epps, amplifying a conspiracy theory that he was an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who intentionally fomented the violent mob that broke into the Capitol in 2021.
That attack was, in fact, led by supporters of former President Donald Trump who sought to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.
But in the lawsuit, Epps alleges that the rumours about him and his wife Robyn, circulated on Fox News, “destroyed” their lives. According to his complaint, the coverage — notably from former host Tucker Carlson — provoked death threats and harassment that forced the couple to sell their home and business and move into a trailer.
The lawsuit draws a parallel between Epps’s case and other recent legal battles pertaining to Fox News’s coverage of the 2020 election.
In April, Fox reached an over $787m settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over false claims pushed by some of the network’s hosts that the company’s voting machines were connected to election malfeasance. Fox also faces a separate $2.7bn lawsuit from another electronic voting company, Smartmatic, which alleges the network broadcast falsehoods that have “decimated” its business prospects.
“Just as Fox had focused on voting machine companies when falsely claiming a rigged election, Fox knew it needed a scapegoat for January 6th,” the lawsuit reads. Epps, it asserts, was that scapegoat.
Video spurs conspiracy
At the centre of the conspiracy theory is a video of Epps in Washington, DC, before and during the storming of the Capitol.
In one video, taken on January 5, Epps is seen urging Trump supporters to “peacefully” enter the seat of the US legislature the next day. The appeal was met with chants of “fed, fed, fed” — short for “federal agent” — from supporters fearful that law enforcement might seek to entrap them.
Another video showed Epps whispering in a man’s ear on January 6, 2021, shortly before the man pushed past a police barricade. Conspiracy theorists have cited the exchange as evidence Epps was encouraging those gathered to commit violence.
The lawsuit filed on Wednesday painted a very different picture. It identified Epps as a then-Arizona resident and Trump supporter who voted for the former president in 2016 and 2020.
Epps, an avid Fox News viewer, joined his son in Washington, DC, for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally based on a sense of duty fed by “lies broadcast by Fox asserting that the election had been stolen”, the lawsuit said.
Once there, Epps, a former Marine, sought to both stop the election certification and maintain order among those gathered, the lawsuit claims.
‘Purposeful avoidance of the truth’
Meanwhile, as the conspiracy theory surrounding Epps took on a life of its own, Fox News was searching for a “scapegoat for January 6th that would help absolve itself and would appeal to its viewers”, the lawsuit said.
“It settled on Ray Epps and began promoting the lie that Epps was a federal agent who incited the attack on the Capitol,” it said. “And with that, Fox, and particularly [host Tucker Carlson], commenced a years-long campaign spreading falsehoods about Epps.”
The 53-page lawsuit goes on to detail several instances where Carlson implicitly or explicitly suggested that Epps was a government plant. One show, for example, featured guest Darren Beattie, who had pushed the Epps conspiracy theory. Carlson left Fox News in April.
“Fox engaged in purposeful avoidance of the truth, intentionally ignoring information and evidence that directly contradicted Fox’s outlandish lies about Epps,” the lawsuit said.
“Fox refused to retract, correct, or apologize for its demonstrably false and defamatory accusations against Epps well after Fox knew definitively that they were false, providing yet additional circumstantial evidence of actual malice.”
Epps had previously testified before a congressional panel investigating the January 6 riot, saying under oath that he had never worked for law enforcement and was not working as a government informant on January 6.
For his part, FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking during a House Committee hearing on Wednesday, said the “notion that somehow the violence at the Capitol on January 6 was part of some operation orchestrated by FBI sources and agents is ludicrous”.
Epps’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages to be determined by a jury.