By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge in Massachusetts on Thursday dismissed a defamation lawsuit against Bill Cosby by an actress who claimed he raped her, ruling that the comedian acted within his rights when he proclaimed himself innocent of the crime.
The civil lawsuit is one of a slew of cases brought against the actor, best known for playing the father in the 1980s television hit "The Cosby Show," by about 50 women who say he sexually assaulted them, often after plying them with drugs and alcohol, in a series of alleged attacks dating back decades.
The vast bulk of the claims are too old to be the subject of a criminal prosecution, though Cosby is also awaiting trial in Pennsylvania on charges he sexually assaulted a former basketball coach at his alma mater, Temple University.
Cosby has denied wrongdoing in all the cases.
U.S. District Judge Mark Mastroianni wrote on Thursday that accuser Katherine Mae McKee had not demonstrated that Cosby defamed her simply by denying her claims, made in an interview with the New York Daily News.
"An accused person cannot be foreclosed ... from considering the issuance of a simple and unequivocal denial — free from overall defamatory triggers or contextual themes," Mastroianni wrote.
Cosby built a long career on a family-friendly style of comedy before being hit by the wave of allegations.
Attorneys for the 79-year-old entertainer welcomed the decision and compared it to a Pennsylvania court's dismissal of a similar civil case last month.
"This is the correct outcome," said attorney Angela Agrusa. "This order, taken in conjunction with the recent decision in the Hill case, amount to a powerful statement of the law."
However, in his decision, Mastroianni noted there were differences between the case he was dismissing and a separate lawsuit before him brought by accuser Tamara Green and since joined by six other women.
"There is a subtle, yet fundamental, difference between stating or implying that an accuser's allegations are completely fabricated (and failing to fully disclose the non-defamatory facts underlying this assertion), as in Green, and disputing an accuser's credibility based on fully disclosed non-defamatory facts, as here," Mastroianni wrote.
An attorney for Green said the decision had no bearing on the other Massachusetts case.
"Judge Mastroianni's opinion makes it explicitly clear that he is not backing away from his previous decision in the Green case," attorney Joseph Cammarata said. "My clients look forward to their day in court."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Alan Crosby and Lisa Shumaker)