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DNC lawsuit against WikiLeaks dismissed, judge rules publishing stolen emails is protected by First Amendment

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Federal Judge John G. Koeltl for the US Southern District of New York has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) which sought to hold WikiLeaks and other defendants liable for the 2015/2016 hacks of DNC computers that led to thousands of emails being leaked. Koeltl said that the DNC’s claim are “entirely divorced from the facts” and that the defendants do not bear legal liability for sharing the stolen emails.

The suit was filed in April 2018 against:

  • WikiLeaks
  • Julian Assange
  • The Trump Campaign
  • Donald Trump Jr.
  • Paul Manafort
  • Jared Kushner
  • George Papadopoulos
  • Richard Gates
  • Roger Stone
  • The Russian Federation
  • Aras Iskenerovic Agalarov
  • Emin Araz Agalarov
  • Joseph Mifsud

In the suit, the DNC alleged that its trade secrets, which included donor lists and strategies contained in the stolen documents, had been illegally compromised. However, in his opinion, Koeltl disagreed, saying that any claim to trade secrecy was lost when the documents were made public. Koeltl added that the newsworthiness of the event also outweighed any claims of trade secrecy.

Koeltl also said that the publication of the DNC emails is “plainly of the type entitled to the strongest protection that the First Amendment offers” and that:

“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.“

Another area Koeltl’s opinion touched on is legal liability when it comes to publishing stolen documents. Koeltl wrote that even if the Russians had directly provided the Trump campaign with stolen documents, it would not be a crime to publish those documents, as long as the campaign did not contribute to the hacking. He added that it is not criminal to solicit or “welcome” stolen documents.

Koeltl ultimately dismissed the suit with prejudice which means that it had a massive legal defect and cannot be refiled. However, the DNC can still appeal the decision.

The opinion comes after previous reports suggested that Assange won’t face charges related to leaking the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) Vault 7 documents about the agency’s device hacking code. However, despite these recent wins, Assange is still being held in Belmarsh prison and faces possible extradition to the US in relation to espionage charges which many critics describe as an attack on standard journalistic practices.

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