A federal judge has ruled that Lance Armstrong had a right to lie about himself in this bestselling books and has thrown out most of a lawsuit against the former cyclist filed by readers who accused him of fraud.
U.S. District Judge Morrison England issued the ruling this week after hearing arguments in the case last month in Sacramento.
"The Court concludes, despite plaintiffs' allegations that the Armstrong books contained false and misleading statements, that the content of the books is afforded full First Amendment protection," England wrote.
A group of readers had filed suit against Armstrong in January, seeking refunds and other costs for Armstrong's books, including his autobiographies It's Not About The Bike and Every Second Counts.
England's ruling guts their case, though the plaintiffs can amend their complaint, appeal or give up.
The books boosted the lie Armstrong told throughout his career, falsely claiming that he never took performance-enhancing drugs while winning Tour de France seven straight times from 1999-2005. They contain several lengthy passages in which he strenuously denying the use of blood transfusions and illegal drugs to boost himself on the bike. Instead of doping, he says his feats were strictly the result of hard work and willpower after surviving cancer, helping him build a myth that made him into an American hero.
But the lawsuit wasn't just about whether he lied in his books – an act that is generally protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Instead, the issue in this case was whether Armstrong's falsehoods could be classified as commercial speech, which is not protected by the First Amendment. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that Armstrong's lies were a form of false advertising and fraud that is not protected speech because it deceived consumers into buying books they otherwise would not have bought had they known the truth behind Armstrong's success.
England rejected that argument in his ruling.
"The promotional materials relating to the Books are inextricably intertwined with the books' contents, which is non-commercial speech," England wrote. "Thus, these promotional materials are also entitled to full First Amendment protection as noncommercial speech."
The plaintffs' attorneys cited an interview Armstrong gave to television-show host Charlie Rose as one example. In the interview, which came during his book promotion tour, Armstrong denies doping. If they had told the truth in this interview or anywhere else, the plaintiffs' attorneys argued that few people would have bought the book because Armstrong's story would have been exposed as a "fairy tale" instead of an inspirational story of nonfiction.
The suit was filed about a week after Armstrong delivered a televised confession about doping after several years of denials. It sought class-action status on behalf of other California consumers and was filed in California under the state's consumer-protection laws.
Attorneys for Armstrong and the book publishers argued that Armstrong's lies were not commercial speech and that the First Amendment protects his right to lie. They also pointed out that no individual plaintiff even claims to have seen the Charlie Rose interview or can point to a specific false statement from Armstrong that induced them to buy the books. Based on those arguments, they asked the judge to throw out the lawsuit.
It's one of five fraud lawsuits filed against Armstrong since his confession to Oprah Winfrey. In one of them, a Texas judge recently ordered Armstrong to answer detailed questions about his doping activities under the penalty of perjury. The case was filed by an insurance company, Acceptance Insurance, that seeks repayment of $3 million in bonuses it paid for winning the Tour de France from 1999-2001
The company wants to know more details about his doping than he provided Winfrey, and his answers in that case are due by the end of the month.
Additionally, Armstrong recently reached an undisclosed settlement with the Sunday Times of London, which sued him last year for fraud. Armstrong had sued the Times several years ago when it published allegations about his doping – a case that the newspaper opted to settle by paying him about 300,000 pounds in 2006. After Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles last year, the paper sued him for about one million pounds in an effort to get its money back, plus legal costs.