Press freedom advocates worry that Project Veritas just muzzled the ‘New York Times’

In an unusual and frightening decision on Thursday, a New York judge ordered the New York Times refrain from “disseminating or publishing further” information about Project Veritas, the activist group led by a far-right provocateur James o’keefe, and “further efforts to solicit or acquire” material, a blatant First Amendment violation that was immediately criticized by journalists and free speech activists. “Prior restrictions – which are orders not to publish – are among the most serious threats to press freedom”, Bruce brown, executive director of the Journalists’ Committee for Press Freedom, said in a statement Thursday. “The court of first instance should never have made this order. If he does not immediately override the prior restriction, ”Brown continued,“ an appellate court must step in and do it ”.

Temporary stay, requested by Project Veritas and granted by the Westchester County Judge Charles D. Wood, came a week after the Times reports internal memos in which a lawyer from the organization, Benjamin barr, describes how he can conduct his undercover operations without breaking federal laws. Project Veritas, which made its name with spy stunts against Democrats and liberal-aligned groups, is under investigation by the Justice Department; last week, federal agents raided O’Keefe and former agents in an investigation into how the organization obtained the president’s diary Joe bidenthe daughter of, Ashley. The Times said he had the documents before this raid, but Project Veritas argued to Wood that their publication violated attorney-client privilege and was an attempt on the part of the Times to embarrass the group in a 2020 libel lawsuit he filed against the newspaper.

The judge’s order is temporary, barring the newspaper from reporting on Project Veritas until a hearing next week. But a court banning a media outlet from doing its job is nonetheless a flagrant affront to press freedom, and the Times promised to fight the decision. “This decision is unconstitutional and sets a dangerous precedent”, Dean Baquet, editor-in-chief of Times, said in a statement. “When a court silences journalism, it is betraying its citizens and infringing on their right to know. ” Elizabeth locke, the lawyer representing Project Veritas in the libel suit, refuse that the order amounted to a prior withholding. But as First Amendment supporters and others have pointed out in the press, this argument is simply absurd.

What is particularly infuriating about Project Veritas’ position is that, as Washington post‘s Erik Wemple O’Keefe and his agents pointed out on Friday 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 or isn’t not journalism. It is also true that there are legitimate questions as to whether the government got “a heavy hand” in attacking Project Veritas, as Locke argued in court. But in his case against the Times, the hypocrisy of the group goes without saying. “Project Veritas leaders see themselves as First Amendment purists,” Wemple wrote, “but the actions they are now asking the courts to authorize would leave this doctrine in tatters. “

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