The organization Consortium for Independent Journalism, a nonprofit that publishes Consortium News, has filed a lawsuit against the United States and NewsGuard for First Amendment violations and defamation.
The lawsuit was filed in a federal court in Manhattan on Monday morning.
According to the complaint, which was reviewed by Timcast News, over the course of its contract with the Pentagon, NewsGuard has been “acting jointly or in concert with the United States to coerce news organizations to alter viewpoints” as to Ukraine, Russia, and Syria, imposing a form of “censorship and repression of views” that differ or dissent from policies of the United States and its allies.
“This is accomplished by a contract between NewsGuard’s ‘Misinformation Fingerprints’ program and the Department of Defense Cyber Command, an element of the Intelligence Community,” the complaint states. “Under this agreement, media organizations that challenge or dispute U.S. foreign and defense policy as to Russia and Ukraine are reported to the government by NewsGuard and labeled as ‘anti-U.S.,’ purveyors of Russian ‘misinformation’ and propaganda, publishing ‘false content’ and failing to meet journalistic standards.”
Consortium contends that NewsGuard’s contract with the government requires it “to find trustworthy sources,” a provision violating the First Amendment that does not permit the government to vet or clear news sources for their reliability, “trustworthiness, or orthodoxy.”
“The First Amendment rights of all American media are threatened by this arrangement with the Defense Department to defame and abridge the speech of U.S. media groups,” said Bruce Afran, Consortium News’s attorney, a statement provided to Timcast News.
“When media groups are condemned by the government as ‘anti-U.S.’ and are accused of publishing ‘false content’ because they disagree with U.S. policies, the result is self-censorship and a destruction of the public debate intended by the First Amendment,” Afran added.
According to a press release from the organization, “NewsGuard uses its software to tag targeted news sites, including all 20,000+ Consortium News articles an videos published since 1995, with warnings to ‘proceed with caution,’ telling NewsGuard subscribers that Consortium News produces ‘disinformation,’ ‘false content’ and is an ‘anti-U.S.’ media organization, even though NewsGuard only took issue with a total of six CN articles and none of its videos.”
Consortium noted that “the suit comes at a time when many in Congress and elsewhere have charged the U.S. government with using private entities and internet platforms as proxies to suppress free speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
The plaintiff seeks a permanent injunction declaring the joint program unconstitutional and for the court to bar the government and NewsGuard from continuing the alleged collusion.
The lawsuit also seeks over $13 million in damages for defamation and civil rights violations.
When reached for comment, NewsGuard General Manager Matt Skibinski stated, “NewsGuard has never worked with any government to suppress, censor, or block any content of any kind. Our limited work with government agencies has been centered on helping to identify and track false narratives emanating from state-sponsored media sources such as Iran, China, and Russia–and these projects are completely separate from and unrelated to our ratings of news sources.”
Timcast News also asked if the organization works to suppress free speech as a proxy of any government agency, politician, or political party, to which Skibinski said, “No.”
“NewsGuard was created as an alternative to the black-box algorithms that decide which news content is promoted and which is not on big tech platforms–and as an alternative to any government censorship of content,” he added. “We rate publishers using publicly disclosed, apolitical journalistic criteria, and we publish the evidence and rationale behind our assessment of each publisher we rate, along with any comments from the publisher, so that each reader can see and decide for themselves.”
As a result of our apolitical rating system, many right-wing sources get high trust scores and many left-wing news sources get low trust scores and vice versa. For example, the conservative Daily Caller has a higher trust score than the liberal Daily Beast, the conservative Daily Wire has a higher trust score than the liberal Daily Kos, and the conservative Fox News website has a higher trust score than the liberal MSNBC website.
Asked if they ever knock website’s ratings over disagreement with US government policies, Skibinski said that they do not.
“No,” he stated. “We rate publishers based on a set of apolitical journalistic criteria, which are publicly disclosed on our website.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a response from NewsGuard that was received shortly after publishing.