In an unusual and chilling ruling Thursday, a New York judge ordered the New York Times to refrain from “further disseminating or publishing” information about Project Veritas, the activist group led by far-right provocateur James O’Keefe, and from “further efforts to solicit or acquire” material—a clear violation of the First Amendment that was immediately decried by journalists and free speech activists. “Prior restraints—which are orders not to publish—are among the most serious threats to press freedom,” Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement Thursday. “The trial court should have never entered this order. If it doesn’t immediately vacate the prior restraint,” Brown continued, “an appellate court must step in and do so.”
The temporary stay, requested by Project Veritas and granted by Westchester County Judge Charles D. Wood, came a week after the Times reported on internal memos in which an attorney for the organization, Benjamin Barr, describes how it can conduct its sting operations without violating federal laws. Project Veritas, which made its name with spying stunts on Democrats and liberal aligned-groups, is being investigated by the Department of Justice; last week, federal agents raided O’Keefe and former operatives as part of a probe into how the organization obtained the diary of President Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley. The Times says it had the documents before that raid, but Project Veritas argued to Wood that their publication violated attorney-client privilege and were an attempt by the Times to embarrass the group in a 2020 defamation suit it filed against the paper.
The judge’s order is temporary, barring the paper from reporting on Project Veritas until a hearing next week. But a court forbidding a news outlet from doing its work nevertheless constitutes an egregious affront to press freedom, and the Times promised to fight the decision. “This ruling is unconstitutional and sets a dangerous precedent,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, said in a statement. “When a court silences journalism, it fails its citizens and undermines their right to know.” Elizabeth Locke, the attorney representing Project Veritas in the defamation suit, denied that the order amounted to prior restraint. But as First Amendment advocates and others in the press pointed out, that argument is plainly absurd.
What’s particularly galling about Project Veritas’s position is that, as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple pointed out Friday, O’Keefe and his operatives posture as First Amendment absolutists. O’Keefe’s group may be more of a right-wing activist group posing as an outlet, but it’s fair to be concerned about the precedent it sets when the government decides what is and isn’t journalism. It’s also true that there are legitimate questions as to whether the government was “heavy handed” in raiding Project Veritas, as Locke argued in court. But in its case against the Times, the group’s hypocrisy is self-evident. “Project Veritas’s leaders fancy themselves First Amendment purists,” Wemple wrote, “yet the actions they’re now asking courts to authorize would leave that doctrine in tatters.”
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