An anti-abortion group has a free speech right to release covert video of discussions with a California company that provides fetal tissue for research, even if the footage was illegally recorded, a judge ruled Friday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joanne O'Donnell rejected efforts by StemExpress to block the videos, though she said the company likely will prevail in its lawsuit claiming its privacy was violated by an anti-abortion activist posing as a biomedical company employee.
How soon the videos might be released was unclear. The anti-abortion group planned to release them as soon as the ruling came down, its lawyer said, but StemExpress was expected to seek a stay from an appeals court.
The case arose after the little-known Center for Medical Progress began releasing videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing providing aborted fetal organs for research.
Abortion opponents said the video showed Planned Parenthood was illegally harvesting and selling the organs. Planned Parenthood said it did nothing wrong and the videos were deceptively edited to support extremists' false claims.
Placerville-based StemExpress, which got some of its fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood, realized the center also secretly record its chief executive and others at a Northern California restaurant in May. It sued to preemptively block those videos from being seen.
StemExpress won a temporary restraining order last month, but O'Donnell said the center's First Amendment rights trumped the company's right to privacy in what it believed were confidential conversations.
The company, which broke ties with Planned Parenthood last week, claimed the videos were illegally obtained because officials weren't notified they were being recorded and their right to privacy was violated. A lawsuit over their privacy claims is pending.
Chief Executive Officer Catherine Dyer said the company's connection to Planned Parenthood led to violent threats and forced her to hire a security team.
Releasing the videos would draw the company and Dyer "deeper into the vortex of public animosity stirred up by CMP's crusade to brand everyone associated with Planned Parenthood as evil criminals," the company said in court papers.
Attorney Charles LiMandri said Dyer and others had no expectation of privacy in a public restaurant and noted there was no confidentiality agreement beforehand.
LiMandri defended the covert recordings.
"This is the only way to get the information," LiMandri said. "You don't go in a den of thieves dressed like a cop."