A judge ruled that Buzzfeed may have legal protection for its decision to publish the “dossier” and a brief accompanying article in January 2017, and could claim fair reporting privilege. The privilege is a common law or statutory protection that enables journalists to report on government activity or reports without the legal liability for its content. The privilege comes with certain qualifications such as it must be a fair and accurate report of an open or public document or proceeding and must be sourced to it.
Aleksej Gubarev is suing Buzzfeed and its editor Ben Smith for defamation for publishing the Trump dossier in January 2017 in which he is named and claims unfairly slanders him. Gubarev’s lawyers claimed that there was no indication that any U.S. Government activity relating to the dossier would qualify for fair reporting privilege.
U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro of the Southern District of Florida rejected their argument, using New York state law. She noted that the plaintiff officials of the government were reading and discussing the dossier, which was enough to qualify as an “official proceeding.” The judge maintained that the protection is only available if a reader of the article could conclude that there was a classified briefing about the contents of the dossier or an FBI investigation concerning the truth of its allegations. The judge ruled that Buzzfeed could satisfy the requirement of sourcing the information because it conspicuously hyperlinked to a CNN article that described the confidential briefings, even though it did not explicitly say so in the piece.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for the American free press and the First Amendment, which allows citizens to monitor the conduct of their leaders and elected representatives,” said Buzzfeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal, according to Politico. “As the judge writes, a document that was circulating at the highest levels of government, under active investigation by the FBI and briefed to two successive presidents, falls squarely into the category of ‘official action’ by our government. As we have argued from the start, the public’s interest in understanding the investigation into whether the Russian government compromised and colluded with Donald Trump is, and has always been, quite clear.”
However, the judge’s ruling denied an even broader form of protection, “neutral report privilege,” to Buzzfeed.Politico> The Hollywood Reporter Decision Aleksej Gubarev v. Buzzfeed, Inc.>
January 9, 2018: Trump’s Lawyer Puts Buzzfeed and Fusion GPS On Notice Over Russian DossierFox News>