Project Veritas Gets Partial Victory Against Teachers Union

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By Hassan A. Kanu

A controversial, politically conservative organization allegedly looking to dig up dirt on a Michigan teachers union scored a partial victory Dec 27.

A federal judge denied the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan’s request to block Project Veritas from using or publishing information it obtained from the union. AFT says Project Veritas used an operative posing as a college student seeking an internship to perform surveillance and gather private union documents.

The group gained the information through deceptive tactics “strikingly similar” to those recently employed by Project Veritas to try to infiltrate the Washington Post, union attorney Mark Cousens told Bloomberg Law Dec. 27.

Marisa Jorge, who allegedly gave a false name to the union, obtained internal documents including personal contact information for union members at a local school and union grievance documents, according to the AFT. The union said she also took notes during a bargaining session between the AFT and a school. “We used commonly available search methods and concluded the person is indeed a woman name Marisa Jorge,” Cousens said. “She appears to have graduated from Liberty University and we believe she’s been known by other names.”

Paul Mersino, Project Veritas’ lawyer, said the organization hasn’t yet filed court documents to admit or deny the allegations of an undercover infiltration.

The Post reported earlier this year that Project Veritas, which is run by conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, sent people posing as journalists to have candid conversations with and obtain information from Post reporters in an effort to undermine the newspaper’s credibility. A Project Veritas employee also approached the newspaper with false sexual harassment claims against then Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as part of the operation.

Trade Secrets or Free Speech?

AFT didn’t prove that the allegedly stolen information was proprietary or that Jorge made unlawful recordings, Judge Linda Parker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan said in the decision. Although the union posed the case as a trade secret dispute, Parker focused on what she said were free speech issues.

Parker denied AFT-Michigan a preliminary injunction against publication, saying that would “infringe upon” Project Veritas’ First Amendment right. But she also found that the union has a “likelihood to succeed on the merits” of a separate claim for “breach of duty of loyalty.”

Mersino called the court’s decision a victory for the First Amendment.

“One side of the aisle calls out ‘fake news,’ the other side cries ‘faux news,’ but frankly our judicial system protects all sides and that’s the beauty of our system and our country,” Mersino said.

“Here we had plaintiffs who came into court without knowing any facts that supported their case and not having the law on their side, and I think the judge had a very thoughtful opinion and issued a good order,” Mersino said.

Cousens said he “respectfully” disagrees with the First Amendment analysis. He added that he plans to continue with the lawsuit. The court said the union has a “viable claim” and “substantial probability of success” based on the breach of a duty of loyalty charge because Jorge “lied to get into the building, lied about who she was and about why she was there,” Cousens said. “The judge has not dismissed the case or any part of it, she’s only ruled on a request for injunction, and we have every intention of moving forward with the litigation.”

“We disagree that they have a likelihood of success,” Mersino said. “How that plays out, we will have to see.”

The case is AFT Michigan v. Project Veritas et al, No. 4:17-cv-13292, E.D. Mich., 10/6/2017

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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