“Whether the Flynns were QAnon followers, and in particular, whether the Flynns were ‘followers’ as that word is understood in the context of CNN’s publication, is a highly fact-intensive inquiry,” wrote Woods, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
The Flynns flatly denied being followers of QAnon, a popular online conspiracy theory that claimed elites were sexually abusing children and that former President Donald Trump was planning to declare a national emergency to strike back at the shadowy figures engaged in the abuse.
Lawyers for CNN argued that tweets from Jack Flynn showed that he espoused key tenets of QAnon, but Woods said those messages couldn’t properly be considered by the court at this stage of the case.
“Even though the tweets express support for QAnon and are therefore evidence that the Flynns were QAnon followers, the Court cannot weigh evidence in deciding a motion to dismiss,” the judge wrote. “Instead, the Court’s task is to assess the legal feasibility of the complaint.”
Woods also said it wasn’t clear that the tweets established to a certainty that the Flynns were QAnon followers.
“The Flynns’ tweets do not conclusively contradict their factual allegations,” the judge wrote.
Jack and Leslie Flynn filed suit against CNN in March, seeking $75 million in damages and claiming that they were defamed by CNN stories and social media postings. A Twitter post on a network account in February showed Michael Flynn standing next to his brother Jack and sister-in-law Leslie, raising their hands and reciting an oath popular with QAnon adherents: “Where we go one, we go all.”
An onscreen graphic that appeared below a screen-grab image of the Flynns said: “CNN goes inside a gathering of QAnon followers.” Similar imagery appeared on CNN TV programming.
Woods’ ruling did not discuss whether Jack and Leslie Flynn should be considered public or private figures. Magistrate Judge Sarah Cave ruled they were private figures, although she suggested the issue might be revisited later in the case. If the Flynns remain classified as private figures, they may only be required to show negligence on CNN’s part. A higher standard applies to suits from public figures, who must show the news outlet knew its statements were false or acted in reckless disregard of evidence that would undercut their truth.
Spokespeople for CNN did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling.