Project Veritas and the mainstream media: strange allies in the fight for press freedom | Remark

An FBI raid on the home of Project Veritas leader James O’Keefe in early November 2021 triggered an unusual display of support from the establishment media that O’Keefe has spent his career targeting and to be ransacked.

The raid was carried out on suspicion that O’Keefe and former Project Veritas staff were involved in the theft of the diary of President Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley, ahead of the 2020 election. Justice said the cell phones sought in the raid would reveal evidence of aiding and abetting the transport of stolen goods worth $ 5,000 or more across state lines, and of non- reporting the theft to law enforcement in violation of federal law.

Project Veritas says the phones contain solicitor-client privileged information and First Amendment-protected information-gathering documents.

O’Keefe is the self-proclaimed “progressive radical” and founder and CEO of Project Veritas. His organization has a long history of undercover operations, frequently targeting progressive nonprofits, politicians and the media with the stated purpose of exposing prejudice, hypocrisy and illegal activity.

Many journalists reject Project Veritas and its methods, saying the organization is ideologically driven and routinely violates established standards of media ethics.

As a professor of ethics and media law, I have been wondering for years how to think about the Veritas project and its escapades. Like many media lawyers, I would like this to go away.

Nonetheless, the media and their supporters, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, of which I was the executive director from 1985 to 1999, mobilized in protest. against searches and seizures. as a possible violation of a news organization’s First Amendment right to gather information. They asked for answers on why Project Veritas was targeted in the investigation. And they made it clear that they were concerned about more than Project Veritas, whose methods they often decried.

Unorthodox methods

Project Veritas promotes itself as a not-for-profit journalism company, and its website touts its many efforts to “achieve a more ethical and transparent society”.

But his work doesn’t look much like traditional journalism. One of his most notorious undertakings was to make secret recordings at various offices of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now in 2009, supposedly showing ACORN staff members advising O’Keefe and his associate how to escape. taxes and trafficking in human beings.

Although a subsequent investigation by the California attorney general concluded that the videos had been “severely altered,” their publication prompted Congress to freeze federal funding for ACORN. ACORN was ultimately exonerated by the Government Accountability Office, but Project Veritas continues to boast of its removal from the organization as one of its “successes”.

A stolen diary believed to have come from presidential daughter Ashley Biden is at the center of the FBI raid on James O’Keefe’s home.

Project Veritas is also reveling in revelations about what it calls “political biases in the mainstream media,” including CNN, ABC, National Public Radio and The Washington Post. Recently he continued The New York Times in a state court in Westchester County, New York, claiming the newspaper had defamed him by calling his videos alleging electoral fraud in Minneapolis “misinformation.” He has now used this case as a means of obtaining a court order to compel the Times to narrow its reporting on the investigation, which Project Veritas said came from government leaks – an extraordinary request for prior restraint unprecedented since the Supreme Court’s Pentagon Papers case in 1971, and hardly compatible with the backing of the former amendment.

Disclosure of illegally obtained information

The Supreme Court said the First Amendment provides some protection for news gathering, although it does not allow news media to violate laws that apply to everyone. Because the government does not license journalists, anyone who collects and disseminates information to the public can claim to be “the press”. This is why the FBI raid concerns members of the media. They fear to be next.

For their part, lawyers representing Project Veritas say that two anonymous individuals, who claimed to have legally acquired the newspaper after Ashley Biden “abandoned” it in a house in Florida, offered to sell it to Project Veritas for possible publication. After lawyers for both sides negotiated an “arm’s length deal,” Project Veritas took delivery of the newspaper.

Project Veritas says it was unable to authenticate the newspaper to its satisfaction and after unsuccessful attempts to return it to Biden’s attorney, returned it to local law enforcement.

If this version of events is true, the US Supreme Court precedent set in a 2001 press-related case, Bartnicki v. Vopper, should apply. There, the High Court ruled that a media organization can disclose important information illegally obtained by a third party, as long as the organization itself was not involved.

“The illegal conduct of a stranger is not enough to remove the First Amendment shield from speech on a matter of public interest,” wrote Judge John Paul Stevens.

If Project Veritas were not involved in the theft of the newspaper, it could also be covered by the Privacy Act of 1980, which prohibits federal and state law enforcement from seizing labor products and journalists’ documentaries, except in very limited circumstances.

In fact, the Justice Department has been banned even from subpoenaing journalists by Attorney General directives dating back to 1974 – although investigations into leaks of classified information have led to notable exceptions to this rule. under the Obama and Trump administrations.

Earlier this year, Biden said it was “just, plain wrong” to force reporters to reveal their sources, and Attorney General Merrick Garland in July vowed to strengthen the guidelines and make them law to ensure that future administrations would also be bound by them. , although he hasn’t done so yet.

Project Veritas says it’s covered by privacy law, which protects people engaged in “public communication,” as well as guidelines.

But in defending the FBI raid on O’Keefe’s home, the government maintains that it followed all applicable regulations and policies regarding what it calls “potential members of the media” – suggesting that they believe that the Veritas project is not.

“Serious ramifications”

Until the underlying affidavits supporting the warrants are released, we will not know whether the U.S. prosecutor believes Project Veritas committed a crime or that it is not an agency. hurry. Either possibility has serious ramifications for all media.

If Project Veritas is convicted of a felony, any journalist who carries leaked or “stolen” information across state lines could be charged with breaking the law. We do not know what this means today when so many documents are transmitted electronically.

Or, if the government narrowly defines “the press” according to its political vision or ethics, then no news organization is immune to attack by future administrations.

Either way, the mainstream media is scrambling and supporting Project Veritas in its fight. It is a question of principle, but also of self-preservation.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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