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ACLU withdraws subpoena for gender clinic whistleblower's messages with journalists after callout

Organization celebrated House passage of protections for journalists in January. "I will wreck you," conservative journalist Chris Rufo warns ACLU if it tries to depose him in Florida Stop WOKE Act legal challenge.

Published: March 8, 2024 11:00pm

Updated: March 12, 2024 3:57pm

The American Civil Liberties Union is known for its historic defense of freedom of the press — unless it's prying open the press.

The 104-year-old organization, which championed a House-passed bill in January to prevent "government from compelling journalists to reveal their sources and work product," is seeking a wide range of communications from a conservative journalist, some but not all related to its First Amendment lawsuit against Florida's Stop WOKE Act.

The ACLU's Missouri affiliate and Lambda Legal quickly dropped requests for communications with journalists related to their lawsuit against the Show-Me State's law against medicalized gender transitions for minors after a liberal journalist posted the subpoena Thursday night.

Gender clinic whistleblower Jamie Reed, a state witness in support of the law, and her lawyer Ernie Trakas separately confirmed to Just the News that counsel for each group notified Trakas on Thursday night and Friday morning that they were withdrawing the requests to Reed.

"The ACLU challenged the law and lost," Reed wrote in a direct message Friday. "They are appealing, and as part of their preparing for the next trial they send [sic] me this incredibly broad over reaching subpoena yesterday."

The Committee to Protect Journalists told Just the News on Friday it couldn't comment, "due to the tight turnaround," on whether and under what conditions it was appropriate to seek a journalist's communications with sources, even if indirectly.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press didn't answer queries.

Chris Rufo, who wears hats as a journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and New College of Florida trustee, disclosed Wednesday on X that the ACLU subpoenaed him for "all of my sources and journalistic materials related to critical race theory" as part of a "heavily financed propaganda campaign against my work."

His lawyers told the ACLU to "pound sand," but the group has threatened to depose him for more than a year, according to Rufo. "Depose me anytime. But I won't let you hide behind a Zoom screen and the pronouns in your email signatures. You will have to face me in person – and I will wreck you," he wrote.

Rufo gave more details in his newsletter Thursday, saying the ACLU sent "an agent to my home while I was eating dinner with my wife and children" to serve the 18-page subpoena in 2022. It would expose his confidential sources on CRT, Black Lives Matter and "racial justice protests."

He's spilling the beans because of "another misleading attack on my character" by the ACLU, apparently referring to a Feb. 14 broadside targeting Rufo as a "far-right" enemy of "racial equity and free speech" for his activism against diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

"Anti-DEI rhetoric has been used to invalidate immunological research supporting the COVID-19 vaccine," senior staff attorney for racial justice Leah Watson wrote, linking a Jan. 4 X post by Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, that doesn't mention vaccines but mocks "public health experts who want you to mask toddlers in their schools to stop the spread of a respiratory virus."

Rufo "misrepresented the nature of federal trainings on oppression, white privilege, and intersectionality" and sought to "limit discourse, instruction, and research that refuted the false assertion that racism is not real in America – and he succeeded," she claimed.

Watson's essay notes the ACLU's court success in blocking the public university-specific provisions of the Stop WOKE Act without disclosing its alleged pursuit of Rufo's confidential sources and materials far flung from the Florida anti-DEI law.

Rufo hasn't made the subpoena public following requests from Just the News and Paul Thacker, who writes a newsletter on government suppression of purported disinformation. "Throw some sunlight on these people," the former Senate Finance Committee investigator wrote on X.

He also didn't mention the subpoena in his 140-minute Tuesday interview with podcaster Joe Rogan, but reiterated his claim that ACLU lawyer Jennifer Granick was behind the federal "disability discrimination" investigation of New College of Florida, Granick's alma mater.

The unnamed complainant faulted trustee Rufo for refusing to use preferred pronouns and mocking students and staff who use them, including fired Chief Diversity Officer Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez, "a trans fluid person of color who uses ze/zir/zirs pronouns."

Rufo told Rogan the investigation is an "intimidation mechanism" that could involve depositions and subpoenas. It suggests the U.S. is "not far from" a "Soviet Union-style gulag situation in 2029."

He called it a "light beer form" of China's suppression of Uyghurs, a population he lived among for a year as a documentary filmmaker. "It gets to be a centralized control over your identity."

The ACLU didn't respond to queries for its explanation of how subpoenaing Rufo doesn't set a precedent that conservatives can use against similarly activist journalists on the left, such as Nikole Hannah-Jones, in challenges to blue states' laws, and whether Granick's complaint prompted the federal investigation.

The ACLU Missouri and Lambda Legal subpoena to Reed ordered her to turn over "[a]ll communications, including any documents exchanged," with journalist Jesse Singal "concerning Gender-Affirming Care provided at or through" the Washington University Pediatric Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which has confirmed some of Reed's allegations.

Singal, whose first name is misspelled in the subpoena, is known for his reporting on gender medicine including transition regret. 

He called out the ACLU on Thursday night and said a lawyer called him to apologize, blaming "a big team" for including Singal's communications.

"Weird this was a mistake given that it's the second thing listed and tons of eyes must have been on this before it was filed," he wrote.

"The ACLU of Missouri has always been and remains committed to the freedom of press," Communications Tom Bastian wrote in an email to Just the News.

"While no subpoena was issued to Mr. Singal, the subpoena that was served to a former staffer at a Missouri clinic has since been revised to exempt information from Mr. Singal and other media," Bastian said.

Another demand was much broader: communications and documents exchanged "involving media or between you and any media outlet or any member of the media." Reed's lawyer Trasak told Just the News this demand came from Lambda Legal.

The subpoena still seeks Reed's communications with a nurse at the clinic who collaborated with her on a "red flag" list of patients who had detransitioned or those Reed said "we had significant concerns about," the office of the Missouri attorney general, state lawmakers, law enforcement and "communications concerning, referencing, or relating to your testimony to or before any body of the Missouri State Legislature."

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