The First Amendment protection for journalists should not keep prosecutors from seeing most evidence gathered in a probe of people connected to conservative group Project Veritas, a former federal judge appointed to the case said in a report Tuesday.
Barbara Jones told U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres that she recommends letting prosecutors view most of the 1,000-plus documents gathered through search warrants for a probe into how the group received a diary purported to belong to President Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley Biden.
Neither Project Veritas nor any of its staffers have been charged with a crime. The group says its activities were newsgathering and were ethical and legal.
Jones, who formerly served as a federal judge in Manhattan, acknowledged that courts have long recognized a qualified evidentiary privilege for information gathered during a journalistic investigation.
But she wrote that the privilege is not absolute and that it offers the greatest protection when the information is gathered from confidential sources.
Jones said she rejected the argument that crimes described in a search warrant were not crimes because those under investigation were protected by the First Amendment and journalistic privilege. The warrant said possible crimes include conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines, interstate transportation of stolen property and possession of stolen goods.
She said previous court cases describing protections afforded to journalistic entities do “not suggest that people are free to commit unlawful acts simply because they are journalists.”
Jones also rejected an argument that the government had acted in bad faith. She said the materials were seized with judicially authorized warrants demonstrating that investigators had probable cause that crimes were committed.
The report from Jones comes more than six months after two Florida residents pleaded guilty to charges, admitting roles in trying to sell the diary and other items stolen from Joe Biden’s daughter to Project Veritas for $40,000.
In court papers, prosecutors have said that Ashley Biden was moving out of a friend’s Delray Beach, Florida, home in spring 2020 when she stored the diary and other belongings there.
A Project Veritas staffer soon flew to Florida and shipped the items to New York as the group paid the two Florida residents $20,000 apiece, prosecutors said.
Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe has said Project Veritas ultimately could not confirm that the diary belonged to Ashley Biden. The group did not publish information from it.
Last month, O’Keefe said in a speech posted online that he has been removed as the group’s leader.
Project Veritas identifies itself as a news organization. It is best known for conducting hidden camera stings that have embarrassed news outlets, labor organizations and Democratic politicians.
Lawyers in the case did not return messages seeking comment.