The Slatest

Federal Judge Rules BuzzFeed’s Publication of Explosive Steele Dossier Is Protected by First Amendment

A BuzzFeed News logo inside BuzzFeed headquarters, Dec. 11, 2018 in New York City.
A BuzzFeed News logo inside BuzzFeed headquarters, Dec. 11, 2018 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A federal judge threw out a defamation suit Wednesday that was filed against BuzzFeed in connection to the site’s publication of the controversial Steele Dossier, the collection of explosive claims about Donald Trump and his campaign’s connections to Russia. The suit was filed by Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev, whose name appears in the dossier compiled by a former British intelligence official ahead of the 2016 election. Gubarev, a resident of Cyprus, who heads the Luxembourg-based company XBT, as well as the Florida tech company Webzilla, filed suit in Florida in February 2017 claiming that BuzzFeed was reckless in its publication of the unverified dossier that implicated Gubarev and his company in the DNC hack.

In response to the suit, BuzzFeed later redacted the names of the companies that appeared in the document, but its editor-in-chief Ben Smith defended the publication of the full dossier—it was the first news outlet to do so—despite the fact that many of the claims were unverified and some unverifiable. BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the 35-page document two weeks before Trump’s inauguration sparked debate in the media about where the ethical bar was when printing this sort of incendiary report. BuzzFeed, in an attempt to defend itself, reportedly deployed an investigative team to try to verify aspects of the dossier; it also sued the DNC for access to what BuzzFeed hoped would be exculpatory evidence about the hack. But, in the end, Judge Ursula Ungaro of the United States District Court in Miami, ruled that whether or not the information was true or verified, BuzzFeed had a right to publish under the “fair report privilege,” which allows media outlets great leeway to publish information even that turns out not to be true, as long as the information was derived from an official public document or statement. This allows, for instance, media outlets to publish stories about governmental proceedings vital to the public interest without opening them up to libel claims for not verifying every aspect of the proceeding.

In ruling for BuzzFeed, Judge Ungaro noted that days before the dossier was published the very top of the U.S. intelligence world briefed then-President Obama and Trump himself on the dossier. “Those briefings constituted what the law calls ‘official proceedings,’ providing BuzzFeed with legal protection to publish the dossier as part of an article headlined These Reports Allege Trump Has Deep Ties to Russia,” the New York Times reports. “In her decision, the judge noted that the BuzzFeed article on the dossier included the disclaimer that it included ‘specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations.’”

That, Judge Ungaro ruled, was enough to protect BuzzFeed from the suit brought by Gubarev, whose lawyers said he plans to appeal. “As Judge Ungaro affirmed in her ruling, a key principle underlying the First Amendment is that the public has a right to know about actions taken by its government,” BuzzFeed editor Smith said in a statement on Twitter Wednesday. “As we have said from the start, a document that had been circulating at the highest levels of government, under active investigation by the F.B.I., and briefed to two successive presidents, is clearly the subject of ‘official action.’ Moreover, its publication has contributed to the American people’s understanding of what is happening in their country and their government.”