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When courts gag news organizations, it takes away citizens’ right to know

In New York, a case of prior restraint against the New York Times is a very real threat to our First Amendment rights.

James O’Keefe, of Project Veritas, speaks at the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas, Nov. 29, 2017. A judge blocked the New York Times from investigating the organization.
James O’Keefe, of Project Veritas, speaks at the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas, Nov. 29, 2017. A judge blocked the New York Times from investigating the organization.
Jae S. Lee/Dallas Morning News via AP

No news is definitely not good news, if the reason people don’t get the news is because a judge doesn’t want them to.

In a recent ruling by a New York state judge, the New York Times was told it couldn’t publish documents it had obtained about Project Veritas, an operation that allegedly uses undercover operations and videos edited in a misleading way to discredit progressives and mainstream news media. The judge also said the newspaper couldn’t seek to obtain more documents.

In a Nov. 11 article about the Justice Department investigation into the operation, the New York Times published excerpts from legal memos outlining ways Project Veritas could create fake identities, while staying just inside the law.

The troubling ruling was a classic case of prior restraint — an order not to publish. When courts gag news organizations, it takes away citizens’ right to know.

Fortunately, prior restraint is rare. It’s been a long time since the courts laid down such an order, in the case of the Pentagon Papers. But it’s important to stop it in its tracks before other judges think they can follow suit.

The judge’s ruling came during proceedings involving a lawsuit Project Veritas filed last year against the New York Times over its coverage of a video the group produced about unverified allegations of voter fraud in Minnesota.

It’s not the court’s job to tell a major newspaper what it can and cannot investigate. If courts do that, powerful interests could muzzle the news media simply by filing lawsuits and demanding a news organization stop covering them until the lawsuit is over, which might be years. By then, the public will have been denied important information when it is most relevant.

In his ruling, Judge Charles Wood of the Westchester County Supreme Court blocked the New York Times from publishing documents that the Justice Department gathered in a raid of the homes of Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe and two of his associates, related to an alleged theft of a diary said to be owned by Ashley Biden, President Joe Biden’s daughter.

Last Tuesday, he extended his order.

“I think [the judge’s ruling] clearly violates the First Amendment,” said Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School and a First Amendment scholar.

Speech can be enjoined if it presents a clear and present danger, but this case is “not remotely close,” Stone said.

The ACLU has questioned whether the government had sufficient reason to stage its raid. But that has nothing to do with reporting decisions by the New York Times.

Wood’s ruling was temporary, but even a temporary ruling chips away at the First Amendment. To call a halt to news gathering as well as imposing prior restraint is beyond worrisome.

Judge Wood or an appellate court should correct this mistake quickly.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.