U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Charlottesville-based broadcaster subpoenaed in defamation suit from ‘Unite the Right’ rally

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 20, 2021

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
May 20, 2021

Local NBC and CW+-affiliate WVIR-TV was among multiple media outlets and journalists subpoenaed on May 20, 2021, for testimony in an ongoing lawsuit stemming from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

Hundreds of white nationalists who had flocked to Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a Confederate statue were met by crowds of counterprotesters, Time Magazine reported in 2017, and the resulting violence led Virginia's governor to declare a state of emergency.

Plaintiff Brennan Gilmore alleged that after witnessing and filming the vehicular murder of anti-racism protester Heather Heyer during the Aug. 12 rally, he was subjected to a series of false articles and conspiracy theories and received numerous death threats against him and his family, The Daily Progress reported. He filed a defamation lawsuit against multiple defendants 一 including Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit, Alex Jones and his website InfoWars 一 in March 2018.

Hoft, as part of his defense, alleged that coverage of the rally was skewed by a vast conspiracy involving the press and government actors; he issued numerous subpoenas to non-party individuals and government and law enforcement agencies in an apparent effort to uncover the supposed conspiracy.

WVIR, which didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment, was issued a 19-page subpoena on May 20, 2021, ordering it to provide deposition testimony via Zoom on June 4. Hoft issued an amended subpoena to the broadcaster on May 27.

The subpoena, reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, notified the broadcast station of a broad range of possible subjects for the deposition, including: 1) “the ‘hundreds of top-tier media outlets’ which provided ‘extensive coverage to the Charlottesville residents who were showing up to challenge the spectre of white supremacy;’” 2) the lawsuit and all the topics therein; 3) the KKK and 4) multiple activist organizations and at least 28 named individuals, including former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, both of whom have been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories from the far-right.

The subpoena also commanded WVIR to turn over documents, videos, photos and communications exchanged by any of its employees or agents in connection with its coverage of the rally, Heyer’s death or the trials of her murderer, James Alex Fields Jr. The amended subpoena contained additional requests for any and all communications and files concerning the rally exchanged between the outlet and past or present employees of the City of Charlottesville, Office of the Commonwealth Attorney for the City of Charlottesville, the Virginia State Police Virginia Fusion Center, or “any person, organization, nonprofit, and/or other entity.”

WSLS and its reporter Ashley Curtis, and NBC4 and its reporter Julie Carey received subpoenas that were nearly identical to that initially served to WVIR. Attorney Leita Walker, representing all five parties, filed a motion to quash the subpoenas on June 14, describing them as “extremely overbroad and unduly burdensome.”

“[The subpoenas] seek virtually every court filing, police report, email, press release, video, photo or other document that the Non-Party Journalists received from anyone一government sources, witnesses to the events, social media, fellow journalists, wire services, etc.,” Walker wrote in the motion, which was reviewed by the Tracker. “[Hoft] is clearly engaged in a massive and massively inappropriate fishing expedition that, in the case of the Non-Party Journalists, seeks information they obtained in the course of their newsgathering activities.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Virginia Joel Hoppe ruled in favor of the journalists and outlets, quashing the subpoenas on July 20, citing Hoft’s inadequate pleadings, according to The Daily Progress.

Walker didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].