BuzzFeed Beats Defamation Lawsuit Over Trump Dossier Story

A day after ruling the outlet couldn't evade a defamation claim by arguing the tech CEO who sued is a public figure, a Florida federal judge has tossed the suit on fair reporting grounds.
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BuzzFeed News editor in chief Ben Smith

On the heels of what looked like a major setback, BuzzFeed has defeated a defamation lawsuit filed by a Cyprus-based tech CEO in connection with its story about Donald Trump's alleged Russian ties.

Aleksej Gubarev in February 2017 sued BuzzFeed for defamation because he was named in the now-infamous Trump dossier, which the outlet published along with its story.

On Tuesday, a Florida federal judge ruled that Gubarev is not a public figure, which looked like bad news for BuzzFeed. The standard required for defamation of a private person is considerably lower than that of a public figure, which requires a showing of actual malice. 

The section of the dossier that references Gubarev claims his company XBT and its affiliates were using botnets and porn to transmit viruses and steal data to the detriment of the Democratic party. It claims Gubarev was a significant player in the operation. The BuzzFeed article contained a disclaimer that the dossier contained unverified allegations and "some clear errors," and Gubarev claims the statements concerning him are false and the outlet published it with reckless disregard for the truth, which is the bar for actual malice. 

BuzzFeed had argued Gubarev was a limited purpose public figure and couldn't meet the burden of proving malice, therefore the claim should be dismissed. Both sides moved for summary judgment with respect to the argument, and U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro on Tuesday granted Gubarev's motion. While Ungaro found Gubarev has greater access to the media than the typical plaintiff would, and therefore more opportunity to publicly fight false claims, she found that the CEO had not involved himself in the public controversy surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 election. Gubarev gave one statement on the broader issue of Russian cybercrime to Bloomberg, after a reporter reached out for an expert opinion, and the court found that tangential participation was not enough to designate him a limited public figure.

Ultimately, though, his status as a private figure didn't matter. Ungaro on Wednesday issued another ruling granting summary judgment in favor of BuzzFeed on the grounds that its decision to publish the dossier was protected by the fair report privilege. 

"[T]he privilege exists to protect the media while they gather the information needed for the public to exercise effective oversight of the government," writes Ungaro, who had previously ruled that New York law would apply. "And, at least in New York, the privilege protects the media even when they report on official action that the government would like to keep secret."

Further, Ungaro found that because BuzzFeed published the dossier in its entirety without editorializing, its presentation was fair and true, which is a requirement of the privilege.

"When we published the Steele Dossier in 2017, we were met with outrage from many corners — a major news anchor and President Trump both deemed it 'fake news'; and several Russian businessmen, plus Michael Cohen, sued for defamation. Today, almost two years later, a federal judge has vindicated our decision," BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said in a statement.

He added: "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. 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 the American people's understanding of what is happening in their country and their government. We are thrilled by today's outcome, and thank Judge Ungaro for taking the time to consider this case on the merits."

Read the opinion, below.