Coalition of Media Organizations Challenges Prior Restraints in Wikileaks Case

Yesterday, a coalition of organizations dedicated to preserving free speech rights on the Internet, including the Citizen Media Law Project, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Los Angeles Times, Gannett, Associated Press, and Society of Professional Journalists, filed a "friend of the court" brief in the Wikileaks case. If you haven't been following the case, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a stunningly broad injunction on February 15 that brought down, a site that is developing what it describes as an "uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis."

True to its mission, Wikileaks has served as a repository for, among other things, documents that outline the rules of engagement for American troops in Iraq, a military manual for the operation of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and "other evidence of what it has called corporate waste and wrongdoing," the New York Times has reported. Documents posted on Wikileaks have been used in a number of news stories in recent months, including stories on the U.S. military's rules of engagement in Iraq (in the New York Times); the treatment of terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo (in Wired); and government corruption in Kenya and Somalia (on BBC News).

The case in California was initiated by Julius Baer Bank and Trust Company, a Cayman Islands banking entity, which was able to convince the judge to issue a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) that enjoined Wikileaks from publishing or distributing copies of documents the bank claims contain "stolen or otherwise wrongfully obtained confidential and protected bank files and records." The judge also issued a Permanent Injunction that ordered Wikileaks' domain name registrar, Dynadot, to immediately disable the entire domain name and remove all DNS hosting records. For more background on the case, you can read two prior posts I've written, here and here.

I've strongly criticized the actions of the bank in a prior post, asserting that it overreached in this case and misjudged the public reaction to its scorched earth tactics: Making Sense of the Wikileaks Fiasco: Prior Restraints in the Internet Age. In this post I want to focus on the free speech issues at stake and why the two orders violate longstanding First Amendment law and should be vacated.

First, the TRO and Permanent Injunction are clearly prior restraints. It is easy to see how the TRO is a prior restraint because it enjoins Wikileaks and "all others who receive notice of this order" from publishing, posting, linking to, or otherwise using certain documents and information originating from the bank. This is a classic prior restraint because it "actually forbid[s] speech activities." Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544, 550 (1993) ("Temporary restraining orders and permanent injunctions - i.e., court orders that actually forbid speech activities - are classic examples of prior restraints.").

The Permanent Injunction is a little more complicated to explain -- even though its impact on speech is far more broad than the TRO -- because it is directed at an intermediary, Dynadot. In the Permanent Injunction, the court ordered Dynadot to "lock" the Wikileaks domain and erase the "navigation information" that directs people to the site. (Jonathan Zittrain does a nice job explaining how this works here.). That is like telling a newspaper it can continue to print its paper, but the delivery drivers all have to go home. Such a prohibition on "distribution" is a prior restraint. See Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 452 (1938) ("The ordinance cannot be saved because it relates to distribution and not to publication. 'Liberty of circulating is as essential to that freedom as liberty of publishing; indeed, without the circulation, the publication would be of little value.'"). Indeed, it is a prior restraint of the most extreme kind because it restrains all speech on the site, including speech that concerns other important issues that have nothing to do with the bank or its customers. See Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931).

Second, under established First Amendment law, prior restraints -- if constitutional at all -- are permissible only in the most extraordinary circumstances. Prior restraints represent "the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights," Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 559 (1976), and are presumptively unconstitutional, see Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U.S. 415, 419 (1971). It makes no difference that the documents posted on Wikileaks are confidential bank records wrongfully uploaded by a former employee. See, e.g., New York Times Co. v. United States ("Pentagon Papers Case"), 403 U.S. 713 (1971) (holding that injunction against publication of illegally leaked classified documents from Defense Department is an impermissible prior restraint).

As the Supreme Court warned in the well-known Pentagon Papers Case, the First Amendment prohibits prior restraints in nearly every circumstance, even where national security may be at risk and even when the source unlawfully obtained the documents. 403 U.S. at 713. The privacy and commercial interests asserted by the bank simply do not meet the exceptionally high standard required for a prior restraint. See, e.g., Keefe, 402 U.S. at 419 ("Designating the conduct as an invasion of privacy" does not justify a prior restraint.); Matter of Providence Journal Co., 820 F.2d 1342, 1350 (1st Cir. 1986) (concluding that privacy, "although meriting great protection, is simply not of the same magnitude" as the interests that could justify a prior restraint).

Moreover, the validity of the TRO and Permanent Injunction is further undercut by the broad immunity granted to Wikileaks and Dynadot by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230). CDA 230 likely immunizes Wikileaks and Dynadot from liability because they are both providers of interactive computer services and the documents were posted by a third party. As a result, the bank cannot establish serious questions going to the merits, let alone a likelihood of success on the merits, of its claims. See, LLC v. Ironport Systems, Inc., 323 F. Supp.2d 1037, 1047 (N.D. Cal. 2004) (denying motion for a preliminary injunction because defendant was immune under CDA 230).

Despite the clear First Amendment issues at stake in the case, neither the bank -- nor the court -- addressed the exceptionally high standard that must be met to warrant the shutdown of the Wikileaks website or the forced removal of newsworthy documents. As a result, with the help of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School and lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, the Citizen Media Law Project and almost a dozen other organizations dedicated to preserving free speech on the Internet have asked the court in the Wikileaks case to allow us to file an Amici Curiae brief opposing continuation of the TRO and Permanent Injunction. You can read our brief here.

Other briefs filed yesterday include a submission by the Project for Government Oversight, ACLU, and Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a motion to intervene in the case filed by Public Citizen and the California First Amendment Coalition that argues that the court did not have jurisdiction in the case, and therefore had no power to issue the injunctions.

(You can follow future developments in the case by going to the CMLP's database entry: Julius Baer Bank and Trust v. Wikileaks.)

UPDATEJudge in Wikileaks Case Reverses Course, is Back Online and Banks in Wikileaks Case Back Down, Seek to Dismiss Case After Losing Fight Over Injunctions.


Subject Area: