MIAMI (CN) – BuzzFeed won a libel case Wednesday, nearly two years after a Russian tech executive accused the news outlet of defaming him in an article about the infamous Donald Trump-Russia dossier.
U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled Aleksej Gubarev cannot prove BuzzFeed defamed him by publishing the dossier, which included allegations of involvement in cyber attacks against the Democratic Party during the 2016 election campaign.
Gubarev, owner of Luxembourg-based XBT Holding SA and Florida-based Webzilla Inc., sued BuzzFeed in January 2017, alleging the online news outlet was “reckless and irresponsible” for publishing the unsubstantiated document.
The dossier was compiled by former British M16 intelligence officer Christopher Steele for a private firm’s opposition research against then-candidate Donald Trump. The dossier contained several unsubstantiated claims about Russian cyber-attacks and salacious allegations about Trump’s supposed sexual exploits in Moscow.
A few weeks after Gubarev’s lawsuit, BuzzFeed redacted his name from the dossier on its website and apologized, but stood by its decision to publish the document.
Wednesday’s 23-page ruling in Miami federal court found BuzzFeed's article fell under the fair reporting privilege, which shields journalists from liability for repeating potentially defamatory allegations if they stem from an official record.
"Official record" became the main argument for both parties. BuzzFeed said the FBI investigation into the dossier constituted an official record. Gubarev's attorneys maintained the government focused on other parts of the dossier and not the allegations against him.
Judge Ungaro found the news organization did not need to prove the federal government was actively investigating the specific allegations against Gubarev, particularly if the reporters did not editorialize.
BuzzFeed only reprinted the dossier – with a disclaimer that cast doubt on the document's veracity – and, based off of other legitimizing sources, did not need to prove wrongdoing, she said.
"Defamation law does not impose that requirement on the press," Ungaro wrote in the ruling.
Gubarev's attorneys, including Evan Fray-Witzer and Val Gurvitz in Boston, plan to appeal the decision.
"First and foremost, nothing in today’s ruling by the court suggests in any way that the allegations concerning Mr. Gubarev, Webzilla, or XBT Holding were true," the attorneys said in a statement to Courthouse News. "Instead, the court ruled on a narrow legal issue, finding that BuzzFeed had a privilege to publish the information even if it was false."
They added, "When we started this case, we knew that it would be a marathon and not a sprint. We remain convinced that, after appeal, this matter will be presented to a jury and that we will succeed in vindicating the plaintiffs’ good names."
BuzzFeed's editor in chief, Ben Smith, saw the ruling as vindication for upholding the First Amendment.
"As we have said from the start, a document that had been circulating at the highest levels of government, under active investigation by the FBI, and briefed to two successive presidents, is clearly the subject of 'official action,'" Smith said in a statement. "Moreover, its publication has contributed to the American people's understanding of what is happening in their country and their government."