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The DNC’S Lawsuit Against WikiLeaks Poses a Serious Threat to Press Freedom

The theory of the suit would mean that any media outlet that publishes misappropriated documents or emails (exactly what media outlets quite often do) could be sued by the entity or person about which they are reporting

Emails of John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, were given to Wikileaks which then published them in a series of releases during the general election against Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) filed a lawsuit Friday afternoon in a Manhattan federal court against the Russian Government, the Trump campaign and various individuals it alleges participated in the plot to hack its email servers and disseminate the contents as part of the 2016 election. The DNC also sued WikiLeaks for its role in publishing the hacked materials, though it does not allege that WikiLeaks participated in the hacking or even knew in advance about it; its sole role, according to the DNC’s lawsuit, was publishing the hacked emails.

The DNC’s suit, as it pertains to WikiLeaks, poses a grave threat to press freedom. The theory of the suit – that WikiLeaks is liable for damages it caused when it “willfully and intentionally disclosed” the DNC’s communications (paragraph 183) – would mean that any media outlet that publishes misappropriated documents or emails (exactly what media outlets quite often do) could be sued by the entity or person about which they are reporting, or even theoretically prosecuted for it, or that any media outlet releasing an internal campaign memo is guilty of “economic espionage” (paragraph 170):

It is extremely common for media outlets to publish or report on materials that are stolen, hacked, or otherwise obtained in violation of the law. In October, 2016 – one month before the election – someone mailed a copy of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns to the New York Times, which published parts of it even though it is illegal to disclose someone’s tax returns without the taxpayer’s permission; in March, 2017, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did the same thing with Trump’s 2005 tax returns.

In April, 2016, the Washington Post obtained and published a confidential internal memo from the Trump campaign. Media outlets constantly publish private companies’ internal documents. Just three weeks ago, BuzzFeed obtained and published a secret Facebook memo outlining the company’s internal business strategies, the contents of which were covered by most major media outlets.

Some of the most important stories in contemporary journalism have come from media outlets obtaining and publishing materials that were taken without authorization or even in violation of the law. Both the New York Times and Washington Post published thousands of pages from the top secret Pentagon Papers after Daniel Ellsberg took them without authorization from the Pentagon – and they won the right to publish them in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read the full article, with possible updates, at The Intercept.

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Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm

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