A federal judge has turned down BuzzFeed’s request to move a libel suit over its publication of a dossier contained unverified allegations against President Donald Trump.
BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief Ben Smith asked that the case be relocated to New York City, but Miami-based U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro issued a ruling Monday refusing to give up the case filed by Russian tech executive and entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev.
BuzzFeed took the controversial step of publishing the 35-page dossier in January, after press reports said it was mentioned in reports U.S. intelligence agencies circulated to top officials in the Obama administration and the incoming Trump team. Smith acknowledged that his reporters could not verify the accuracy of the facts in the dossier, but he said the public should be able to see it since it had circulated widely in Washington and was affecting policy discussions.
However, Gubarev — owner of a Dallas-based web hosting firm called Webzilla — sued in February over the inclusion of a reference to Gubarev and his companies using “botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” (The report actually called him “GUBAROV.”)
BuzzFeed apologized to Gubarev around the time the suit was filed. The news outlet also redacted the references to Gubarev from the version of the report currently accessible on its site.
However, the Russian venture capitalist pressed on with his suit, targeting BuzzFeed and Smith over what Gubarev’s attorneys caustically branded “one of the most reckless and irresponsible moments in modern ‘journalism.'”
Gubarev’s lawyers initially filed the case in Broward County, Florida, citing the fact that Webzilla is incorporated in Florida. A few weeks later, BuzzFeed moved the case to federal court in Miami and then sought to transfer it to federal court in Manhattan.
In a 30-page ruling, Ungaro waded through a complex set of factors used to assess such transfer motions and concluded that it made more sense to keep the case in Florida.
Like other media lawyers, BuzzFeed’s attorneys warned that allowing the plaintiffs in the case to use the fact that news is distributed through the internet to pick virtually any forum in the country to bring the suit gave them an unfair advantage. However, the George H.W. Bush-appointed judge concluded that BuzzFeed’s ties to Florida are “extensive.”
“Based upon the evidence proffered by the parties, it is clear that Defendants do not passively operate a website that is merely accessible in Florida; rather, Defendants’ connections to Florida are extensive – Defendants regularly send reporters to Florida to cover Florida-based stories … regularly author and publish articles that are aimed at a Florida audience … and Defendants derive revenues from Florida-based advertising client, including VisitFlorida.com, which is the Official Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation,” the judge wrote. “Thus, the Court finds a direct relationship between Defendants, the State of Florida, and Plaintiffs’ defamation claims.”
Ungaro also noted that the federal courts in Manhattan are notably slower than those in South Florida, with the Florida cases reaching trial “in half the time” of those filed in New York.
A spokesman for BuzzFeed said the outlet expects to prevail despite Monday’s setback.
“While we are disappointed in the judge’s ruling, we’re confident that Mr. Gubarev’s suit will be dismissed wherever we are forced to fight it,” BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said.
An attorney for Gubarev did not immediately respond to a request for comment.