DNC lawsuit against WikiLeaks dismissed in major free press victory

3 August 2019 — Defend Wikileaks

In a historic win for WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange a federal judge in New York dismissed a lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) over WikiLeaks’ publication of DNC documents in 2016. The case sets an important precedent for freedom of the press.

In the 81-page ruling, District Judge John Koeltl emphasized the “newsworthiness” of WikiLeaks’ publishing activities, describing them as “plainly of the type entitled to the strongest protection that the First Amendment offers.”

Judge Koeltl importantly emphasized, “Journalists are allowed to request documents that have been stolen and to publish those documents.” The Judge also observed that such journalistic collaboration with sources is “common journalistic practice.” That principle is important for investigative journalists who often receive information from whistleblowers.

The Judge drew a comparison to the Pentagon Papers case of 1971, where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the New York Times and Washington Post to publish secret documents on the Vietnam War provided by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. In that case the Nixon administration attempted to prevent the newspapers from publishing and threatened them with criminal prosecution.

“If WikiLeaks could be held liable for publishing documents concerning the DNC’s political financial and voter-engagement strategies simply because the DNC labels them ‘secret’ and trade secrets, then so could any newspaper or other media outlet,” wrote District Judge John Koeltl.

Judge Koeltl also noted that it is “constitutionally insignificant” whether WikiLeaks knew the published documents were acquired without permission, by hacking, or other means before they were obtained by WikiLeaks. “A person is entitled [to] publish stolen documents that the publisher requested from a source so long as the publisher did not participate in the theft.”

Numerous free speech organizations supported WikiLeaks’ position in the case, including the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The groups submitted a brief in support of dismissing the case on First Amendment grounds.

The DNC had alleged that there was “circumstantial evidence” that WikiLeaks collaborated with the Trump campaign in WikiLeaks’ publishing activities. The DNC also brought claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, Wiretap Act, Stored Communications Act, Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and laws protecting trade secrets. The DNC’s arguments were dismissed as “moot or without merit.” The suit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the DNC cannot refile.

The opinion was handed down on 30 July 2019.

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