Fighting Defamation Aimed at Our Democracy
Protect Democracy and Ogg, Murphy & Perkosky, P.C. represent Erie, Pennsylvania postmaster Robert Weisenbach in a lawsuit challenging disinformation that undermined faith in the 2020 election and, ultimately, in our democracy.
The case was filed against Project Veritas, Project Veritas’s founder and CEO James O’Keefe, and Richard Hopkins, a former mail carrier for the Erie post office. In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential election—and following months of statements from former President Trump and others attempting to delegitimize mail-in voting—Project Veritas, O’Keefe, and Hopkins published three articles and an affidavit that falsely and maliciously accused Weisenbach of backdating mail-in ballots in order to help Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. The third story was published after Hopkins expressly recanted his accusations in an interview with U.S. Post Office Inspectors. Even after the U.S. Post Office published its final report finding “no evidence” of any fraud, Project Veritas refused to retract its stories.
Mr. Weisenbach and his family suffered enormous harm. They were even forced to leave their home and seek shelter when an angry individual showed up in their driveway after the first two false stories were published. Moreover, these stories also did grave damage to our democracy. Former President Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham, and major news outlets amplified Hopkins’s claims and cited them as evidence of widespread voter fraud, undermining public faith in the results of the 2020 presidential election.
What Hopkins, Project Veritas, and O’Keefe engaged in after the 2020 presidential election was not investigative journalism. We believe the sensational series of statements and videos was targeted character assassination aimed at undermining public faith in the results of the 2020 presidential election. It is a strategy that has gone unchecked for far too long.
John Langford, Counsel at Protect Democracy said:
“There are no free speech protections for those who undermine our democracy by intentionally or recklessly spreading lies about individuals. For democracy to function, there must be consequences for these lies.”
What happened to Robert Weisenbach?
In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, President Trump proclaimed that “the only way we’re gonna lose this election is if the election is rigged” and there “is massive fraud.” He specifically criticized the expanded use of mail-in ballots, claiming it would result in widespread voter fraud. At the time (and as eventually transpired) it was widely reported that Election Day ballots in key swing states would likely favor President Trump, but that later-counted mail-in votes would favor then-candidate Joe Biden, eventually erasing apparent Trump leads. Late on election night 2020, when the results suggested that Trump could lose his bid for re-election, Trump declared, “This is a fraud on the American public.”
In line with President Trump’s narrative, the day after the 2020 election, Project Veritas began to publish reports suggesting that the U.S. Postal Service was participating in a scheme to allow illegitimate mail-in ballots to be counted. On November 4, it published a report claiming that post office employees in Michigan were illegally backdating ballots. Project Veritas also published a report suggesting that ballots had been illegally thrown out. Each of those claims was subsequently debunked.
Robert Weisenbach, a U.S. postmaster in Erie Pennsylvania, is the victim of another series of false reports from Project Veritas. On November 5, Project Veritas published a report based on an anonymous “whistleblower” at the Erie General Mail Facility. The “whistleblower” alleged that “Anti-Trump” Weisenbach was attempting to sway the 2020 presidential election in favor of then-candidate Joe Biden by illegally backdating ballots.
As it turned out, the “whistleblower,” who quickly revealed himself to be Richard Hopkins, was lying. There was no illegal scheme. Hopkins knew there was no illegal scheme. Project Veritas and its reporter and founder, James O’Keefe, III, likewise also knew or purposefully avoided the truth. In fact, Weisenbach is not even “Anti-Trump.” But Hopkins, Project Veritas, and O’Keefe pressed forward anyway, publishing two more stories and a false affidavit, each of which reaffirmed the initial allegations and added more lies to those in the first story. The third of those stories was published after Hopkins expressly recanted his initial claims in an interview with United States Postal Service investigators.
Hopkins’s claims, Project Veritas’s stories, and the ensuing national media frenzy threatened Weisenbach’s and his family’s safety. Weisenbach received death threats, and the Weisenbach family was forced to temporarily flee their home after police subdued an angry individual in their driveway. Even after United States Postal Service investigators issued a final report in February 2021, concluding that there was “no evidence” of any illegal scheme, Project Veritas refused to retract its stories, and Weisenbach’s reputation has never fully recovered.
Why are we suing?
We joined Ogg, Murphy & Perkosky, P.C. in representing Robert Weisenbach because he deserves justice and because there must be consequences for those who spread lies that undermine our democracy.
Democracy is government by public opinion, which is formed through public debate and expressed primarily through elections. A functioning democracy accordingly depends on an informed electorate that has access to reliable information about candidates, elections, the operations of government, and other matters of public concern.
Recognizing this dynamic, there are those who intentionally and repeatedly spread lies in order to manipulate public debate and public opinion for political, partisan, financial, or personal gains. Others recklessly and repeatedly spread lies, showing equal disregard for the truth and the harms to our democracy. Coupled with the speed at which all information—including lies—now travels, these intentional and reckless liars pose an existential threat to our democracy.
Now, more than ever, there must be consequences for those who lie in ways that undermine our democracy.
Who are the defendants?
We are suing three defendants.
- Richard Hopkins is the putative “whistleblower” and former post office employee who repeatedly lied about Mr. Weisenbach leading a scheme to illegally backdate ballots.
- Project Veritas is the video production house that knowingly or recklessly published Hopkins’s claims, added to those claims, and amplified the lies on its myriad platforms.
- James O’Keefe, III, is the founder of Project Veritas and the primary Project Veritas agent responsible for publishing, adding to, and amplifying Hopkins’s lies.
Who is the plaintiff?
- Robert Weisenbach is the postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service’s Erie General Mail Facility.
What are the claims?
Mr. Weisenbach is bringing three claims in his amended complaint.
The first is a defamation claim against Hopkins for publishing, many times over, lies about Mr. Weisenbach. The second is a defamation claim against Project Veritas and O’Keefe, for republishing, many times over, Hopkins’s defamatory statements, as well as adding to those statements. The third is a concerted tortious action claim against Hopkins, Project Veritas, and O’Keefe for acting in concert with one another, as well as for substantially assisting one another in defaming Mr. Weisenbach.
Relevant to the third claim, Project Veritas and O’Keefe not only failed to meaningfully investigate Hopkins’s claims before republishing and adding to those lies; they helped Hopkins to make those claims in the first place. Among other things, Project Veritas and/or O’Keefe drafted Hopkins’s defamatory affidavit; instructed Hopkins on how to profit from his story by soliciting donations online; assured Hopkins that Project Veritas had obtained lawyers on retainer to defend Hopkins, if need be; and consulted with him on a daily basis.
Protect Democracy Joins Defamation Suit Against Project Veritas: Group Maliciously Lied About a PA Postmaster In the Aftermath of 2020 Election
Judge Granted Postmaster’s Motion to File Amended Complaint