Project Veritas pokes at the New York Times but loses a legal battle

Project Veritas, the right-wing website that often publishes surreptitiously recorded and selectively edited videos to embarrass liberals and mainstream media outlets, continued a battle against the New York Times this weekend by posting edited video of two depositions from a lawsuit the Times is engaged in against Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and candidate for vice president in 2008. 

Palin alleges that the Times libeled her in a 2017 editorial that inaccurately linked her to the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that wounded US representative Gabby Giffords and killed six people. In the videos posted by Project Veritas two former members of the Times editorial board answered questions about the editorial process. The videos were “sliced and diced,” a lawyer for the Times in the Palin trial said. The Times’ legal team argued that the evidence, which was not admitted at trial, could interfere with jury deliberations.

Separately, last week, a New York State appeals court stayed an order that had kept the Times from publishing certain material about Project Veritas. First Amendment advocates and a group of sixty-three media organizations that joined a legal brief on behalf of the Times had decried the unusual order as an unconstitutional example of prior restraint, a form of censorship before the fact.

“Prohibiting a news organization from publishing information of public interest is clearly unconstitutional,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which filed the amicus brief. “It was unconstitutional on day one, and it’s unconstitutional on day eighty-five, and we’re glad to see it lifted.”

Justice Charles Wood, a Westchester County trial court judge, had signed the order against the Times on November 18. It blocked the paper from publishing attorney-client privileged materials from Project Veritas—something the paper would normally be within its right to do, so long as it hadn’t actively stolen them.

In their arguments against the order, lawyers for the Times warned that it could set a dangerous precedent. In the future, they wrote in a filing, “any individual or organization wanting to limit unfavorable news coverage could simply file a libel suit over an earlier story and then use discovery orders to censor or prevent future reporting.” 

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A four-judge panel agreed to the stay last Wednesday, February 9, until a formal appeal is heard on or before March 11. But the appellate court did not agree to vacate the order permanently, noted Libby Locke, an attorney for Project Veritas, who said she was confident that the court would ultimately side with her client.

A spokesperson for the Times, Danielle Rhoades-Ha, said she was pleased with the decision. “The use of prior restraint to prohibit newsgathering and block the publication of newsworthy journalism is unconstitutional,” said Rhoades-Ha. “No libel plaintiffs should be permitted to use their litigation as a tool to silence press coverage about them.”

The background to the case is here

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Caleb Pershan is a CJR fellow.