A federal judge should not accept a proposal by Project Veritas to appoint a special master after FBI agents raided homes linked to the journalism group, U.S. government lawyers argued in a court filing on Friday.
After agents executed search warrants on several homes linked to Project Veritas, including a residence of founder James O’Keefe, the group’s lawyers asked a judge to appoint a special master, or a retired judge, to sift through material seized by federal agents and separate out certain files.
Agents seized cell phones and other electronic devices from O’Keefe and two former Project Veritas journalists earlier this month, according to court documents.
The raids were motivated by the apparent belief that the group committed crimes in its handling of a diary said to be penned by Ashley Biden, daughter of President Joe Biden. Project Veritas says it was given the diary last year, but passed it onto law enforcement when it could not verify its authenticity.
“The extraordinary actions taken by the government, most significantly the use of search warrants to seize news gathering materials from journalists, appear to be founded on the premise that the diary does belong to Ashley Biden. That fact, however, does not warrant the exercise of federal criminal authority to investigate and punish journalists who merely obtained the diary and possessed it temporarily,” lawyers for the group wrote in a motion to the court.
Even more troublesome, there were no limits imposed in the search warrants on the government’s access to material it seized, lawyers said, which enables it to access privileged material, whistleblower material, and material about news investigations.
“The appointment of a special master to review the seized materials is necessary to protect core First Amendment interests and attorney-client privileged information,” they added.
District Court Judge Analisa Torres, an Obama nominee, halted the extraction of files from the seized devices last week as she considers the request.
In the Nov. 19 filing, government lawyers said they have already employed a “filter team” of government employees to sift through the seized material and asserted Project Veritas lawyers “have offered no persuasive explanation why that practice would not be sufficient here to protect any qualified journalistic privilege or First Amendment privilege that might exist or to protect any attorney-client or work product privilege.”
The warrants were supported by detailed affidavits and authorized by a federal magistrate judge, the government noted.
Agents say they’re investigating whether Project Veritas was involved in a conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines.
Journalists are legally allowed to publish stolen materials as long as they themselves did not steal them, according to a Supreme Court ruling in Bartnicki v. Hopper, which has been upheld in subsequent rulings, Project Veritas lawyers said.
The government, though, indicated it has reason to believe Project Veritas was involved in acquiring the diary. However, the proof backing this claim was redacted in the version of the filing released publicly.
Further, the government argued Project Veritas employees aren’t journalists.
“Project Veritas is not engaged in journalism within any traditional or accepted definition of that word. Its ‘reporting’ consists almost entirely of publicizing non-consensual, surreptitious recordings made though unlawful, unethical, and or/dishonest means,” lawyers said.
Project Veritas lawyers have until Nov. 24 to file a response.