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Judge throws out Laurie Fine's libel lawsuit against ESPN

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- A libel lawsuit brought against ESPN by the wife of a former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach has been thrown out by a judge who found no actual malice occurred as the sports network reported claims that two team ball boys were sexually abused decades ago by the coach and that the wife had a sexual relationship with one of them.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David E. Peebles rejected Laurie Fine's claims Friday after concluding she was a public figure after serving as a radio personality and inviting public attention to herself and her views about protecting at-risk youth.

Peebles said the 2012 defamation claims against ESPN Inc. and an ESPN reporter and producer could not stand because Fine would be unable to prove actual malice, a higher legal threshold than gross irresponsibility that must be proven when someone is not a public figure.

Fine is married to Bernie Fine, a onetime assistant Syracuse coach who was fired by the university in November 2011 after allegations of child molestation against him surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State. He was never charged and has adamantly denied wrongdoing.

Her lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for a comment.

ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said: "We feel vindicated by the court's decision."

In ruling, Peebles concluded there was "an abundance of evidence in the record strongly suggesting" she had engaged in sexual conduct with one of the ball boys despite her flat denial. But he added there was conflicting evidence whether she had sex with the boy and whether she knew if her husband was sexually molesting boys.

He said there was "not one shred of evidence" to suggest ESPN published stories it knew were false.

"Indeed, defendants have staunchly defended the truth of the publications from the time of publication to the date of filing of the motions now pending before the court," Peebles wrote.

He said there was no evidence to show ESPN had serious reservations or doubts about the accuracy of its reporting, or reasonably should have, after a "painstakingly thorough investigation" by its employees.

The ESPN reports concerned claims by former Syracuse ball boys -- Bobby Davis and his stepbrother Mike Lang -- that they were abused by Bernie Fine while they were boys in the 1980s.

Davis, a ball boy for six years, said the abuse began in 1984 and occurred at the coach's home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four.

The accusations were first aired by ESPN in November 2011, bringing scrutiny of the Syracuse team and its Hall of Fame head coach, Jim Boeheim.

Evidence in the lawsuit included a 47-minute audiotape of a phone conversation with Laurie Fine that Davis said he made in 2002 in which she says she "knew everything" that went on.

Syracuse University had its law firm investigate Davis' claims in 2005 and said the probe found no evidence to back up the accusations.

The ruling came the same day Syracuse advanced to this year's NCAA tournament Elite Eight.