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Verizon handed over rally journalist's phone records in lawsuit

A former New York Times journalist is fighting a subpoena in a federal Unite the Right rally lawsuit after alleging that Verizon improperly sent her phone records to a defendant.

Jessica Bidgood was among more than a dozen people not named in the Gilmore v. InfoWars lawsuit whom defendant Jim Hoft attempted to subpoena this past spring.

Hoft, a fake-news purveyor behind the far-right Gateway Pundit blog, is one of the defendants named in a lawsuit filed by Brennan Gilmore in the wake of the deadly white nationalist rally held Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville.

Gilmore, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, claims he was the subject of various false articles related to the rally.

After Gilmore witnessed and filmed the vehicular murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer on the day of the rally, the defendants started spreading conspiracies about Gilmore, which led to death threats against him and his family, according to the suit.

In addition to Hoft, Alex Jones and InfoWars, the complaint names Free Speech Systems LLC, Lee Stranahan, Lee Ann McAdoo, Scott Creighton, Derrick Wilburn, Michele Hickford of Words-N-Ideas LLC and former U.S. Rep. Allen B. West, R-Fla., as defendants. West was later dismissed from the suit and Wilburn and Hickford recently agreed to financial settlements.

Hoft is accused of publishing an article on his blog accusing Gilmore of being a “deep state shill with links to George Soros” and that the “State Department was involved in Charlottesville rioting and is trying to cover it up.” Neither Hoft nor any of the other defendants have been able to substantiate these claims.

In an effort to defend himself, Hoft sent broad subpoenas to a slew of nonparties, including various state and local leaders. Earlier this summer, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe granted motions from about 10 nonparties to quash attempts from Hoft to subpoena them for a wide range of documents not directly related to the lawsuit.

Soon afterward, Hoppe also granted a motion to quash that was filed on behalf of several news outlets and reporters, including: Gray Media Group, Graham Media Group, WSLS-TV, WRC-TV and journalists Ashley Curtis and Julie Carey.

Now, counsel on behalf of Bidgood is alleging that Verizon improperly provided Hoft with a wide range of her phone records.

According to an Aug. 2 memorandum in support, the vast majority of Bidgood’s telephone records provided to Hoft are irrelevant and “constitute a severe invasion of her privacy.”

Additionally, Bidgood’s counsel argues that the subpoenas should be quashed because Bidgood is a journalist who was working for The New York Times during the time period covered by the subpoena and her phone records are likely to reveal contacts with sources on any number of news reports and their related investigations.

“The subpoena did not mention Bidgood by name, however, and it did not otherwise alert Verizon that Bidgood is a journalist and that her telephone records are therefore privileged,” the memorandum reads. “Instead, the subpoena affirmatively misrepresented that ‘[n]o legitimately privileged materials are sought.’”

Hoft did not notify Bidgood of the subpoena, her counsel claims and, “for reasons that remain unclear” neither Bidgood nor The New York Times Co. learned of the subpoena until July 14.

“That same day, and before The Times and Bidgood learned of the subpoena, Verizon mailed records responsive to the subpoena to Hoft’s counsel,” the memorandum reads. “Upon learning of the subpoena, and based on Verizon’s representation that it would attempt to stop delivery of the mailing upon receipt of notice that Bidgood had filed a motion to quash, she immediately filed such a motion.”

Verizon was unable to stop the delivery of Bidgood’s phone records, leading her counsel to file a motion to enforce the protective order in this case. That order asked the court to order Hoft’s counsel to treat Bidgood’s privileged phone records as “recalled information” under the protective order and to immediately destroy them so as to preserve the status quo while Bidgood’s motion to quash was pending.

According to Bidgood’s memorandum of support, courts in Virginia recognize a qualified journalist’s privilege rooted in the First Amendment. Citing in part the LaRouche v. NBC case, Bidgood’s counsel wrote that, unless overcome, that privilege protects reporters from being compelled to disclose information obtained in the course of their newsgathering.

“Nothing in the record or in the subpoena served on Verizon gives any clues as to how Bidgood’s phone records are even tangentially relevant to the claims or defenses in this case, much less how Hoft could possibly satisfy the LaRouche test,” the memorandum reads. “Certainly, the vast majority of the calls reflected in the Verizon records have absolutely nothing to do with this case: As is clear from a simple search on The New York Times’ website, Bidgood’s research and reporting on the Unite the Right rally and related topics represented only a fraction of her journalistic work between March 2017 and March 2018.”

In an effort to expedite the consideration of Bidgood’s motion, her counsel attempted to meet and confer with Hoft’s counsel about why his client believes he needs Bidgood’s phone records to defend against Gilmore’s defamation claims.

“But that request has been ignored and, given the farfetched nature of Hoft’s claims regarding some massive conspiracy between the media and government, Bidgood sees no upside in trying to guess how her phone records could possibly be relevant to Hoft’s defenses, much less satisfy some compelling interest as the LaRouche test requires.”

A hearing for Bidgood’s motion to quash is not currently scheduled. A multi-week trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 18 in Charlottesville’s federal court.


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