Far-right video producer Project Veritas has been trying to undermine the careers and rights of mainstream journalists for years, but in the aftermath of FBI raids on the homes of its founder and CEO James O’Keefe and his associates, the group is now claiming that its own journalistic rights were violated.
Project Veritas is largely known for targeting and attempting to infiltrate political campaigns, nonprofits, and mainstream media outlets and releasing recordings of selectively edited video and audio from these organizations in an effort to frame its target as biased or criminal. In the past year, the far-right grifter has produced and pushed misinformation about voter fraud and the coronavirus vaccine.
In early November, the FBI raided the homes of O’Keefe and some of his associates as part of an investigation into the missing diary of Ashley Biden, President Joe Biden’s daughter. The diary went missing last year and excerpts appeared online shortly before the 2020 election. While acknowledging that his group did have access to the diary, O'Keefe claimed “that he and his colleagues had been operating as ethical journalists, had turned the diary over to the law enforcement authorities last year and had sought to return it to a lawyer for Ms. Biden,” according to The New York Times, before hand-written pages from it were published on another right-wing website just before Election Day.
Since the raids were publicly reported in The New York Times, Project Veritas has been claiming its First Amendment rights were violated. O’Keefe alleged that his “reporters’ notes” and source information were confiscated and suggested that as a journalist, that information is protected under the First Amendment.
Project Veritas has dedicated years to tearing down the media, attempting to undermine vital press freedoms in multiple lawsuits against mainstream news outlets. And Project Veritas itself does not operate as a news organization. It engages in unethical undercover sting operations where its operatives assume false identities in order to infiltrate Democratic campaigns, liberal organizations, media outlets, and other enemies of the right. It has reportedly sought out donors for input on the publishing timeline for stories, taken the words of its targets out of context, and pushed dangerous misinformation about the vaccine.
Meanwhile, Project Veritas has been reveling in coverage concerning its First Amendment rights from Politico and The Washington Post as well as statements of begrudging support from the American Civil Liberties Union, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and others.
At the same time, Project Veritas is actively undermining the rights of actual journalists at The New York Times.
On November 11, The New York Times published an article based on Project Veritas’ “internal documents” and the FBI’s search warrant for O’Keefe that “reveal the extent to which the group has worked with its lawyers to gauge how far its deceptive reporting practices can go before running afoul of federal laws.” Project Veritas alleged, in an unrelated libel lawsuit against the Times, that authorities had leaked the information about the search warrant and the memos to the paper after receiving them from the raid. No evidence was presented for this, and The New York Times says they received the materials prior to the raid occurring.
Nevertheless, Project Veritas’ lawyers convinced a judge in the libel case to temporarily block the Times from “publishing or seeking out certain documents related to the conservative group.” (The lawsuit is over a 2020 Times article about a now-debunked Project Veritas video accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) of illegal ballot collection, which the Times called a “coordinated disinformation campaign.”)
This is the first attempt by a court to use prior restraint -- a court order meant to preemptively prevent media publication -- against The New York Times since the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. In response, some of the same groups and journalists that issued statements of concern regarding the FBI raid issued similar condemnations of Project Veritas.
Project Veritas’ attempt to curb freedom of the press while also claiming to be journalists shouldn’t surprise anyone. The organization has spent years undermining or attempting to undermine journalism, especially any pieces or people critical of the group’s actions. It has a video series dubbed “Retracto,” which appears designed to direct harassment at journalists who write unfavorable articles about the group or even a tweet about Project Veritas and then later have to partially or fully retract their statements. The “retracto” video series features the face and, if applicable, the Twitter handle of targets, enabling viewers to attack them after watching the video.
In addition to The New York Times, Project Veritas is also suing CNN for libel. Rulings in favor of O’Keefe in either case would undermine essential protections for journalists first outlined in the precedent set by Supreme Court case New York Times Company v. Sullivan. The ruling in that case protects journalists from being targeted with frivolous defamation and libel claims by setting a higher standard for what counts as libel in coverage of people considered public figures.
For years, O’Keefe and Project Veritas have been attempting to undermine press freedoms, while insisting they are journalists themselves. Media outlets should not rush to the defense of an organization actively trying to undermine their rights -- especially one with a history of pushing misleading claims and conspiracy theories.