from the press-freedom-matters dept
I am no fan of Project Veritas. They appear to be a group of malicious grifters, deliberately distorting things, presenting them out of context to fit (or make) a narrative. Even so (or perhaps, especially so), we should be extremely concerned about the FBI’s recent raid on Project Veritas’ founder James O’Keefe and two of his colleagues.
The FBI and DOJ say they’re investigating the apparent theft of a diary belonging to Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley, which later ended up in Project Veritas’ hands. But, as we’ve discussed for many years, there are serious 1st Amendment questions involved when the government is raiding the homes of journalists and seizing their computers, phones, and other records. I’m assuming that some of you are going to say that this shouldn’t matter because O’Keefe and Veritas aren’t “real journalists,” and we’ll get to that argument later. But the simple fact is that after many years (and multiple administrations lead by both parties) in which the DOJ felt free to collect journalist records, earlier this year, we were told that the DOJ was finally going to no longer sweep up journalist records (though even then it noted that didn’t apply in cases where the journalists themselves were targets of a criminal investigation — as was the case here).
However, unless there’s really strong evidence indicating that Project Veritas was involved in the actual theft of the diary, if the organization was merely the recipient of that diary, then these raids raise many, many concerns about violations of press freedoms and the use of law enforcement to intimidate the press.
Many others seem to be similarly concerned, as this is raising a lot of alarm bells for those who work on press freedom issues:
?This is just beyond belief,? said University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley, a former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. ?I?m not a big fan of Project Veritas, but this is just over the top. I hope they get a serious reprimand from the court because I think this is just wrong.?
The ACLU is also quite concerned:
?Project Veritas has engaged in disgraceful deceptions, and reasonable observers might not consider their activities to be journalism at all. Nevertheless, the precedent set in this case could have serious consequences for press freedom. Unless the government had good reason to believe that Project Veritas employees were directly involved in the criminal theft of the diary, it should not have subjected them to invasive searches and seizures. We urge the court to appoint a special master to ensure that law enforcement officers review only those materials that were lawfully seized and that are directly relevant to a legitimate criminal investigation.?
The Committee to Protect Journalists is equally worried:
?While we do not endorse some of the tactics Project Veritas employs, the FBI?s recent raids on the organization?s founder and his associates represent a concerning overreach by law enforcement,? said CPJ U.S. and Canada Program Coordinator Katherine Jacobsen. ?The government must provide a clear link between members of Project Veritas and alleged criminal activity before searching their homes for information about source material. Conducting raids without this kind of link sets a dangerous precedent that could allow law enforcement to search and confiscate reporters? unpublished source material in vague attempts to identify whistleblowers.?
But, yes, as mentioned earlier, I’m sure some people are saying that Project Veritas and James O’Keefe aren’t “real” journalists. And, I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that O’Keefe makes a mockery of actual journalism with his out of context and extremely misleading releases. But, part of having a “freedom of the press” means not allowing the government to determine who is and who is not press. Because that power alone creates massive limits on a free press. If the government can unilaterally decide that certain organizations are not “really” journalists, then that enables them to punish any news organization they want. Think how a Trump administration might use that power against the NY Times or CNN.
It’s okay to call out Project Veritas for their ridiculous and misleading reporting. You can personally believe that they are doing dangerous work. But the government cannot unilaterally declare them not to be press in order to raid homes and seize notes — because if they can, they can do that to any journalist.
Another bit of pushback I heard on this was that mere “receipt of stolen goods” is, itself, a crime, and that somehow makes it okay to raid O’Keefe and his colleagues. Again, though, that would set a hugely dangerous precedent. Remember, the Nixon administration went after the NY Times and the Washington Post for receiving the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. Tons of whistleblowers and leakers hand over documents to journalists that they have no legal right to copy or take (and they may face legal consequences in doing so). But the media who receives those works should not be subject to raids and intimidation from the government. Even if they’re a bunch of ridiculous grifters intent on publishing utter nonsense.