PETA Backs Pro-Lifers’ Appeal

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 In a rare show of solidarity, six groups with differing political and ethical views have filed amicus or “friend of the court” briefs asking the Ninth Circuit to overturn a jury verdict and multi-million dollar judgment against the pro-lifers who exposed Planned Parenthood’s trafficking in baby parts. 

Life Legal filed its opening brief on behalf of former Center for Medical Progress board member Albin Rhomberg on February 26. The amicus briefs filed last Friday serve to amplify and extend the arguments presented in the briefs of Rhomberg and his co-defendants. 

The amicus briefs argue that District Court Judge William Orrick erred in his findings throughout the lawsuit and in his instructions to the jury – including his refusal to instruct the jury that costs incurred as a result of lawful First Amendment activity are not recoverable as damages. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), along with Mercy for Animals, Animal Outlook, and eleven First Amendment scholars filed a brief highlighting the role of undercover journalists in exposing the barbaric treatment of people and animals throughout American history. Justin Marceau, a law professor at the University of Denver and co-author of the brief, wrote, “Undercover newsgathering and reporting is central to democratic accountability in the United States.” 

PETA’s brief shares Life Legal’s concern that “bankrupting civil claims” like those imposed on the pro-lifers who published the Planned Parenthood videos are an attack on First Amendment speech. According to Marceau, “[I]f left standing, the district court’s various decisions on recoverable damages will be a roadmap for investigative subjects to sue journalists, activists, and whistleblowers to chill their undercover investigative work.”

New York-based Project Veritas, a journalism enterprise dedicated to exposing “corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct” also filed an amicus brief supporting the undercover investigators, arguing the unconstitutionality of recording laws that punish based on the recorder’s intent, thus amounting to a “thought crime.”

Other briefs in support of undercover investigative journalism were filed by Live Action, which has published several of its own undercover videos exposing illegal abortion industry practices, Americans United for Life, Judicial Watch, and the Attorneys General of 20 states. 

In 2019, a jury in Judge Orrick’s courtroom found seven defendants – Center for Medical Progress, David Daleiden, Sandra Merritt, Albin Rhomberg, Troy Newman, Adrian Lopez, and BioMax – liable for Planned Parenthood’s alleged $2.4 million in damages following the release of secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood executives discussing harvesting and selling baby body parts. Judge Orrick affirmed the jury’s verdict and awarded Planned Parenthood an additional $13.7 million in attorney fees. 

“I am thankful for this show of support from a wide range of organizations and individuals who champion free speech and civil rights, and who expose inhumane and cruel practices,” said Life Legal client Albin Rhomberg who was sued by Planned Parenthood for his role in uncovering the abortion industry’s barbaric trade in fetal body parts. “I am also grateful for Life Legal’s defense, especially the tireless work done by Chief Legal Officer Catherine Short on my behalf. It is my hope that Ninth Circuit Appellate Court judges will recognize the devastating impact on free speech of District Court Judge Orrick’s jury instructions and will overturn the jury’s verdict and judgment.”

Enforcement of the entire judgment is stayed pending this appeal.