ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for right-wing organization Project Veritas asked an 11th Circuit panel on Tuesday to overturn the dismissal of its defamation lawsuit against CNN alleging the news network’s journalists inaccurately framed the group's permanent suspension from Twitter as part of a wider crackdown on misinformation.
Billing itself as an investigative journalism organization, Project Veritas is best known for its undercover video “sting” operations aimed at embarrassing progressive organizations, members of the mainstream media and other perceived political enemies. The group is currently under investigation by the Justice Department to uncover how it acquired a diary kept by Ashley Biden, President Joe Biden’s daughter, before the 2020 election.
The Project Veritas Twitter account was banned in February 2021 after posting a video of its staffers trying to interview Facebook Vice President Guy Rosen outside of a residence. A frame of the video contained the house number, a violation of the site’s policies against the sharing of other people’s private information without consent.
CNN reporter Ana Cabrera tweeted about the ban, writing that Project Veritas was kicked off the platform for “repeated violations of Twitter’s policies prohibiting the sharing – or threats of sharing – of other people’s private information without consent.” In the following days, Cabrera and other CNN journalists made on-air statements tying the permanent suspension to the group’s alleged spread of misinformation.
Project Veritas sued the news network in April 2021 after its calls for a correction or retraction were rejected. The case was tossed out by a Georgia federal judge last year.
On Tuesday, an attorney for the organization told the Atlanta-based appeals court that the lower court judge misapplied the law in finding that CNN did not defame her client.
Attorney Elizabeth Locke of Clare Locke, who represents Project Veritas, argued that CNN’s statements connecting the suspension to the group’s purported promotion of misinformation were false because Twitter’s official reason for the ban was the group’s “truthful publication of supposedly private information.”
But an attorney for CNN told the panel that the ruling should be upheld, arguing that the commentary by its journalists was not likely to have had a significant reputational impact in the minds of average viewers.
In an appearance on Brian Stelter’s show “Reliable Sources,” Cabrera said that Project Veritas’s suspension was “part of a much broader crackdown... by social media giants on accounts that are promoting misinformation.” Stelter responded that the “very controversial conservative group” got swept up in a “Twitter policy by violating multiple rules on the site.”
CNN has argued that the broadcast was substantially true. The network also claimed that Project Veritas has not shown that its reputation would not have been harmed by reporting which instead said that the group inappropriately shared personal information in violation of Twitter rules.
In a 23-page decision dismissing the case, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones wrote that the organization's reputation would have been maligned either way.
“While there is some difference between violating a policy by providing incorrect or misleading information and violating a policy by truthfully providing someone’s private information (and potentially exposing a person to harm), the distinction is not enough to make the statement at issue actionable as both violations are similarly damaging to the journalist’s reputation,” wrote Jones, a Barack Obama appointee. “Project Veritas’s allegations and arguments do not plausibly suggest that the truth (as pled in the complaint) would have a different effect on the mind of the average reader in terms of the reputational harm.” (Parentheses in original.)
But Locke told the 11th Circuit panel that Jones made a critical mistake in looking at the words spoken by the anchors “in isolation” rather than in context.
“Cabrera made this false claim even though she knew her statements were wrong,” Locke said. “I think it’s pretty clear that the implication [of defamation] was intended here.”
Arguing on behalf of CNN, attorney Eric Schroeder of Bryan Cave said the statements were made in the context of a broader discussion about how social media sites should control bad actors and content which violate their community standards.
“The gist of that story was that there’s a broader phenomenon going on. Social media like Twitter [was] cracking down on sources of misinformation. An example of the misinformation that was subject to a crackdown was Project Veritas,” Schroeder explained. “CNN was not referring to the policy violation as misinformation. They were referring to Project Veritas as the source of the misinformation.”
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes appeared incredulous at Schroeder’s statements, saying he believed that the attorney’s reading of the on-air comments “is completely contrary to the plain meaning of the words.”
“You don’t persuade – at least me – that saying those words means something other than the plain meaning,” said Carnes, a George H.W. Bush appointee. “The average listener – in fact, even the below average listener – would gather from that that Project Veritas had been cracked down on for spreading misinformation. It’s clear.”
But Schroeder argued that the “reputational sting” to Project Veritas was the same whether CNN’s anchors said the organization spread misinformation or was suspended from Twitter for doxxing, a term for the malicious sharing of personal information.
“The difference here is modest,” Schroeder said.
“I just never thought I’d see a news organization arguing that lying to your subscribers or viewers is not any worse than revealing somebody’s house number,” Carnes said.
Carnes was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Elizabeth Branch and Andrew Brasher, both Donald Trump appointees.
The panel did not indicate when it would reach a decision in the case.
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