SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Wednesday barred the release of videos made by an anti-abortion group whose leaders are facing felony charges in California accusing them of recording people without permission in violation of state law.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling blocking the recordings made by the Center for Medical Progress at meetings of the National Abortion Federation, an association of abortion providers.
The Center for Medical Progress previously released several secretly recorded videos that it says show Planned Parenthood employees selling fetal tissue for profit, which is illegal. Planned Parenthood said the videos were deceptively edited to support false claims.
The videos stoked the American abortion debate when they were released in 2015 and increased Congressional heat against Planned Parenthood that has yet to subside.
It's not clear what's on the bulk of the recordings the group made at National Abortion Federation meetings.
A leader of the Center for Medical Progress, David Daleiden, said in a statement that the 9th Circuit was preventing the release of footage of Planned Parenthood leadership discussing criminal conduct at the meetings and its ruling was an attack on the First Amendment.
"CMP will continue to fight this unconstitutional abuse of power and vindicate our First Amendment rights and those of all citizen journalists to speak and publish on matters of urgent public concern," Daleiden said.
The 9th Circuit noted in its decision that U.S. District Judge William Orrick had reviewed the National Abortion Federation footage and found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
The court affirmed the judge's decision that the Center for Medical Progress waived any First Amendment right to release the videos by signing confidentiality agreements with the federation that barred recordings of its meetings or the disclosure of any information obtained there.
The National Abortion Federation argued that release of the videos would endanger its members.
"There's no denying that the smear campaign launched by the defendants has put abortion providers at risk, and we are grateful that the Ninth Circuit affirmed our preliminary injunction," said Vicki Saporta, National Abortion Federation president and CEO.
California's new Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed 15 felony counts each against Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, another leader of the Center of Medical Progress, saying they made recordings without the consent of the people in them in violation of state law. Some of the charges filed Tuesday stem from the recordings at National Abortion Federation meetings.
Becerra, a longtime congressional Democrat who took over the investigation in January, said in a statement that the state "will not tolerate the criminal recording of conversations."
The charges came eight months after similar charges against the pair were dropped in Texas.
California prosecutors say Daleiden, of Davis, California, and Merritt, of San Jose, filmed 14 people without permission between October 2013 and July 2015 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and El Dorado counties. One felony count was filed for each person recorded. The 15th involved criminal conspiracy to invade privacy.
Daleiden said in an email to The Associated Press that the "bogus" charges are coming from "Planned Parenthood's political cronies."
"The public knows the real criminals are Planned Parenthood and their business partners," Daleiden said.
The conversations included officials from Planned Parenthood and StemExpress, a California company that provides blood, tissue and other biological material for medical research and had received fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood.
In one of the pair's videos, Daleiden poses as "Robert Sarkis" of the phoney Biomax Procurement Services and is shown discussing liver tissue with the chief executive of StemExpress at a restaurant.
In April of last year, Daleiden said in a Facebook post that California Department of Justice agents raided his home, seizing all of his video footage along with personal information.
Since then the case had gone largely quiet, with virtually no revelations about the investigation and no indication that the charges were coming before they were filed in San Francisco Superior Court.
The case is one of the first high-profile prosecutions for Becerra, who left the U.S. House to take over for Kamala Harris after she became a U.S. Senator.
Daleiden and Merritt had been indicted in Texas, but all of the charges were dropped as prosecutors said a grand jury had overstepped its authority. The grand jury had been convened to investigate Planned Parenthood, but after finding no wrongdoing it indicted Daleiden and Merritt instead.
Dalton reported from Los Angeles.
Sudhin Thanawala And Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press