New York Times urges no 'prior restraint' against Project Veritas coverage

NEW YORK, Nov 22 (Reuters) - The New York Times urged a judge to restore what it called its constitutionally-protected freedom to cover the conservative activist group Project Veritas, on the eve of a hearing on a rare attempt to block news coverage by major media.

Project Veritas' claims "do not implicate the kind of extraordinary public harms, such as national security, that American courts have suggested might rarely justify a prior restraint," the Times' lawyers said in a Monday court filing.

The newspaper also accused Project Veritas of trying to "silence critical reporting," despite First Amendment guarantees, while it pursues a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper.

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Project Veritas and its lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Justice Charles Wood of the Westchester County Supreme Court at a Tuesday hearing will consider whether to extend or lift his Nov. 18 order blocking the Times from publishing or seeking various documents related to Project Veritas.

The group had objected to a Nov. 11 Times article discussing its journalism practices and a Department of Justice probe into its possible role in the theft of a diary from President Joe Biden's daughter Ashley.

That article discussed memos by a Project Veritas lawyer that the group said were protected by attorney-client privilege. It wants the Times to destroy the memos and remove them from the Nov. 11 article.

The dispute relates to Project Veritas' separate defamation case concerning a September 2020 Times article describing a video the group released alleging voter fraud connected to the campaign of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat.

The Times said it has not faced any prior restraint since the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, and that "well-settled" law lets media publish newsworthy information they obtain independently, even when the subject is suing it for libel.

"If the rule were otherwise, litigants could readily silence critical reporting by filing meritless lawsuits," the Times said.

The Times also said it was "difficult to understand" how Project Veritas, which "presents itself as an investigative news organization ... now advances arguments that would enable litigants to restrain its own work."

The case is Project Veritas v New York Times Co et al, New York State Supreme Court, Westchester County, No. 63921/2020.

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Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Helen Coster; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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