A federal jury in San Francisco ruled Friday that activists must pay $870,000 in punitive damages over their undercover video investigation of Planned Parenthood.
The jury of nine men and one woman found that David Daleiden, who heads the Center for Medical Progress, and his co-defendant Sandra Merritt, caused the abortion provider “substantial harm” with their videos.
By posing as human tissue procurers for a fake company called BioMax, the pair from 2013 to 2015 infiltrated a number of abortion conferences as well as Planned Parenthood-affiliated clinics in Texas and Colorado. The activists captured conversations between abortion doctors and staff and later posted them online.
Daleiden’s attorneys argued he and Merritt were acting as citizen journalists. According to the lawyers, the activists believed “violent felonies” were being committed against babies who were born alive at Planned Parenthood clinics and that the organization was illegally profiting from the sale of fetal tissue for medical research.
Planned Parenthood’s attorneys claimed the release of the videos was part of a sophisticated scheme to smear the organization and strip it of federal funding.
After just over three days of deliberation, the jury found Daleiden and his group conspired to commit fraud, breach of contract and trespass and to violate federal and state recording laws in Maryland, California and Florida. The jury also awarded Planned Parenthood and several affiliates $478,000 in compensation for security costs and changes to their vetting procedures. The damages could total as much as $2.3 million.
No First Amendment allowed
During the six week trial, U.S. District Judge William Orrick III barred jurors from taking into account any information uncovered by the activists that could retroactively justify their actions. He also told them not to consider the First Amendment as a defense.
“The First Amendment is not a defense to the claims in this case for the jury to consider,” Orrick wrote ahead of trial. “Defendants’ argument that they were citizen journalists was admissible as context for the defendants’ case, not as a legal defense.”
When the Center for Medical Progress released its videos in 2015, they bolstered conservative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. The organization was forced to apologize over a clip of one of its officials joking about shipping fetal skulls to researchers for a fee.
Abortion opponents claimed that the videos revealed that Planned Parenthood was engaged in the illegal sale of body parts. The organization has denied the charge, and investigations by thirteen states did not support the claim. A federal investigation has so far yielded no findings.
Planned Parenthood said in a statement that Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress had “intentionally waged a multiyear illegal effort to manufacture a malicious campaign.” The organization added that “the jury recognized today that those behind the campaign broke the law in order to advance their goals of banning safe, legal abortion in this country.”
The Center for Medical Progress said on Twitter that the verdict set “a dangerous precedent for citizen journalism and First Amendment civil rights across the country.”
MLK said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Today’s ruling threatens First Amendment rights of all Americans. Now more than ever we ask you to join us in fighting injustice coming out of San Francisco’s Federal Court. We will appeal! https://t.co/RAtSNYm11F
— CMP (@CtrMedProgress) November 15, 2019
David Daleiden fights on
Daleiden’s attorneys have from the beginning said the trial was biased against them. One of the lawyers, Peter Breen, said they will challenge the ruling on First Amendment grounds.
“We believe the compensatory damages should go to zero on appeal,” he told Courthouse News Service.
In another blow for Daleiden and his organization Friday, a Ninth Circuit panel refused to disturb a federal judge’s order blocking any further publication of recordings by the group.
Daleiden and Merritt also face criminal charges of eavesdropping and invasion of privacy. They are scheduled to appear in state criminal court on Dec. 6, when San Francisco Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite will determine if the case should go to trial.