The New York Times has been barred by a New York state justice from publishing documents prepared by a lawyer for the right-wing group Project Veritas, which filed a defamation suit against the Times in 2020.
Justice Charles Wood of the Westchester County Supreme Court ruled last week that the New York Times should return any physical copies of the legal memos they obtained to Project Veritas and destroy electronic versions they may have, CNN reported.
Project Veritas, which was founded by James O’Keefe, “investigates and exposes corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud and other misconduct in both public and private institutions to achieve a more ethical and transparent society,” as its website explains.
The libel suit that Project Veritas filed against the New York Times claims that the Times’ reporting on a Veritas video was “incorrect, defamatory and driven by resentment on the part of the newspaper’s reporters,” according to The Hill.
But despite an ongoing libel suit, the New York Times quoted legal documents that had been prepared by Project Veritas’ attorney Benjamin Barr.
The article in which the legal documents were quoted was about an investigation by the Justice Department that looked into the potential role that the group might have had in the theft of a diary that belonged to Ashley Biden, President Biden’s daughter, The Hill reported.
Project Veritas responded to this and “argued that the content of Barr’s memos, despite being prepared beforehand, was related to the legal issues in the case. Publishing reporting including the memos was an attempt to embarrass the paper’s opponent in litigation,” according to The Hill.
This resulted in Judge Wood ruling last month that the Times temporarily stop publishing the memos.
The new ruling by Wood on Friday determined the documents the Times acquired and then quoted were protected under attorney-client privilege.
“The Times is perfectly free to investigate, uncover, research, interview, photograph, record, report, publish, opine, expose or ignore whatever aspects of Project Veritas its editors in their sole discretion deem newsworthy, without utilizing Project Veritas’s attorney-client privileged memoranda,” Wood wrote in his ruling, according to The Hill.
However, the Times’ publisher A.G. Sulzberger said that the Times will be appealing the ruling immediately, Politico reported.
Sulzberger further said in a statement that the memos were obtained legally and cited the 1971 case regarding the Pentagon Papers — when the Nixon administration tried to prevent newspapers from reporting on a classified document that outlined American involvement in the Vietnam War and the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Times and the Washington Post.
“This ruling should raise alarms not just for advocates of press freedoms but for anyone concerned about the dangers of government overreach into what the public can and cannot know,” Sulzberger said in a statement, according to the New York Times. “In defiance of law settled in the Pentagon Papers case, this judge has barred The Times from publishing information about a prominent and influential organization that was obtained legally in the ordinary course of reporting.”
The New York Times is calling this ruling from Judge Wood “an unconstitutional prior restraint” that is prohibited by decades of established First Amendment law, CNN reported.
However, despite criticism and the Times’ accusation that this is a violation of the First Amendment, Wood is simply upholding his previous ruling and adhering to the rules of attorney-client privilege.
“Steadfast fidelity to, and vigilance in protecting First Amendment freedoms cannot be permitted to abrogate the fundamental protections of attorney-client privilege or the basic right to privacy,” Wood wrote, according to CNN.
He also outlined that the legal memos in question did not have news value — one reason the New York Times should not be publishing them.
“A client seeking advice from its counsel simply cannot be a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public,” Wood wrote in his ruling, Politico reported.
Meanwhile, in direct juxtaposition to the New York Times’ claim that this ruling was a violation of the First Amendment, Project Veritas says this was an absolute win for freedom of speech and the press.
Elizabeth Locke, a lawyer for Project Veritas, claimed that the New York Times’ “behavior was irregular and outside the boundaries of law,” according to the Times.
“The court’s thoughtful and well-researched opinion is a victory for the First Amendment for all journalists and affirms the sanctity of the attorney-client relationship,” she added.
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