BuzzFeed doesn’t have to disclose the source of the so-called “Steele dossier” it published detailing President Trump’s alleged ties to Russia because the website qualifies as a “news agency” under Florida’s shield law, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge John O’Sullivan ruled for BuzzFeed in an 11-page order refusing a Russian businessman’s attempt to identify the source of the Steele dossier, a salacious document compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and published by BuzzFeed days prior to Mr. Trump’s presidential inauguration last January.
The dossier purported ties between Mr. Trump and Russia, including claims concerning Aleksej Gubarev, a Russian businessman who subsequently sued BuzzFeed for libel within weeks of its publication.
Mr. Gubarev’s attorney argued that BuzzFeed should be compelled to explain how it obtained the dossier, but the judge ruled otherwise Thursday and said state law shields the website from revealing its source’s identity.
“There is nothing in the statute that limits the privilege to traditional print media. Because BuzzFeed writes stories and publishes news articles on its website, it qualifies as a ‘news agency,’ ‘news journal’ or ‘news magazine.’ Accordingly, BuzzFeed is covered under the Florida Shield Law,” the ruling said.
BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal called the ruling “a victory for journalists.”
“We’re pleased the judge has reaffirmed the right of news organizations to safeguard the identities of sources — a right that is protected under both state and federal law,” Mr. Mittenthal said in a statement. “And we continue to stand by our decision to publish the dossier, which was being circulated at the highest levels of government and is the subject of multiple federal investigations.”
Indeed, former President Barack Obama and his successor were separately briefed by the FBI on the dossier prior to BuzzFeed’s publication Jan. 10, and its contents have been hotly disputed in the months since as investigators in the House, Senate and Department of Justice assess the scope of Russia’s involvement in Mr. Trump’s election.
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 White House race, and the congressional and Justice Department probes are investigating allegations ranging from Moscow’s alleged election meddling, to possible collusion between between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Trump’s campaign and transition teams.
The Steele dossier alleged connections between Mr. Trump and Russia, and it claimed in part that Mr. Gubarev owned internet companies implicated in a Russian government-sponsored hacking campaign during of the 2016 election.
Despite losing its effort in court, however, an attorney for Mr. Gubarev said his client recently learned the identity anyway of BuzzFeed’s source.
“What the Court really said here is that before BuzzFeed could be required to tell us its source, we had to try to get the information from other places,” Mr. Gubarev’s attorney, Val Gurvits, told Politico. “As it turns out, we were able to get the information we wanted and were actually in the process of withdrawing the motion when the decision [was] issued.
“I unfortunately can’t reveal it — that information was designated ‘Confidential attorneys eyes only,’” Mr. Gurvits added. “So while we know it, we can’t make it public as of yet.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly disputed the contents of the dossier, calling it “fake news” and “made-up.”
Moscow has denied meddling in Mr. Trump’s election, and the White House has denied colluding with the Kremlin.
• Andrew Blake can be reached at email@example.com.
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