Judge sides with BuzzFeed in defamation suit over dossier

A federal judge Wednesday sided with BuzzFeed in a defamation suit, ruling that the news outlet had a legal right to publish the so-called Steele dossier.

Judge Ursula Ungaro, a George H.W. Bush appointee, ruled that BuzzFeed was reporting on "an official proceeding" in publishing the dossier. 

"[T]he privilege exists to protect the media while they gather the information needed for the public to exercise effective oversight of the government," Ungaro wrote in the decision.

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Ungaro also found that BuzzFeed's presentation was fair and true.

The case decided on Wednesday was brought in 2017 by Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev, who is accused in the dossier of hacking the Democratic National Committee.

The Steele dossier, which was compiled by former British agent Christopher Steele and funded in part as opposition research into the Trump campaign, contains a number of salacious and unverified claims. BuzzFeed in January 2017 published the dossier in full with that warning.

Although the court ruled against portions of BuzzFeed's defense, including ruling that Gubarev was not a public figure, the judge found that "fair report privilege," or the news outlet's right to report on official documents or proceedings, outweighed Gubarev's other claims.

“When we published the Steele Dossier in 2017, we were met with outrage from many corners,” BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith said in a statement. “Today, almost two years later, a federal judge has vindicated our decision.”

“As Judge Ungaro affirmed in her ruling, a key principle underlying the First Amendment is that the public has a right to know about the actions taken by its government. As we have said from the start, a document that had been circulating at the highest levels of government, under active investigation by the FBI, 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,” he added.

The dossier, which has become a focus of the ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia and possible bias at the FBI and Justice Department in launching the investigation, respectively, detailed alleged efforts by Russia to coordinate with the Trump campaign to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. It also includes salacious details about possible blackmail Russia compiled on Trump during his visits to Moscow.

Gubarev filed the suit in February 2017, claiming his reputation and those of his companies were damaged by what he says are false allegations in the dossier that they were involved in hacking against the Democratic Party in 2016. BuzzFeed retroactively blacked out any references of Gubarev or his companies, but the dossier had already been widely shared without such edits. 

While federal investigators have been able to corroborate certain details in the dossier, it has not yet been able to prove the entire document to be true.