WikiLeaks wins motion to dismiss in Democratic National Committee lawsuit in important First Amendment decision

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.

Jennifer Robinson acts for WikiLeaks and worked with US co-counsel Joshua Dratel in responding to the DNC suit and preparing the motion to dismiss. The suit had been served on WikiLeaks by Twitter and raised significant concern for the ability to publish in the context of an election. 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.

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 that "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."

Mr Dratel, counsel for WikiLeaks in this case, said that the dismissal of the DNC lawsuit "reaffirms First Amendment principles that apply to journalists across the board, whether they work for large institutions or small independent operations.”

In 2017, Mike Pompeo (then Director of the CIA and now US Secretary of State), claimed that  WikiLeaks was a “hostile non-state intelligence agency” and that Julian Assange should not benefit from First Amendment protections. The decision in the DNC suit demonstrates this is incorrect.  This is also relevant in relation to the US attempts to prosecute and extradite Mr Assange.

Ms Robinson said, “Our motion to dismiss asserted long-standing First Amendment principles that protect the media’s ability to publish information in the public interest. This decision affirms that right -- and that Wikileaks benefits equally from constitutional protection under the First Amendment.”

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 case has received widespread media coverage, including here, here and here.

The full judgment can be found here.