Prosecution of Barrett Brown Still Threatens Journalistic Freedom in U.S.
Last week, the federal government finally dismissed 11 controversial counts from its overzealous prosecution of journalist Barrett Brown. These counts charged Brown with identity theft for sharing a link to records documenting improper and potentially illegal activities by the U.S. intelligence contractor, Stratfor Global Intelligence.
The fact that Brown has been in jail for 18 months, based in large part on these charges, has threatened and continues to threaten press freedom in the United States.
Before the government dropped its charges, we were less than five days away from filing an amicus brief in the case on behalf of EFF and some of the most influential organizations protecting the rights of journalists around the world, including Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and PEN American Center.
We may never know why the government finally decided to drop the charges, though it could have been due to the threat of our amicus brief. We called the Assistant U.S. Attorney handling the case on Tuesday to let her know we planned to file the brief (a formality). The next day, without any warning to us or to Brown’s lawyer, the government filed its motion to dismiss, which the court granted on Friday.
But as we argued in the brief, the government should never have brought these charges in the first place. Doing so violated the First Amendment and created a chilling effect on all journalists reporting in the United States.
It is possible the government came to its senses and dropped these charges after realizing the First Amendment problems with its prosecution. Its initial determination to prosecute Brown may have been clouded by the fact that Brown admitted to being a heroin user and threatened an FBI agent and his children in a semi-coherent video posted to YouTube. (This happened after the FBI charged Brown’s mother with obstruction of justice for failing to produce Brown’s laptop.) Brown still faces charges for this threat in a separate criminal case, as well as charges of obstruction of justice for concealing evidence. However, Brown’s arguable lapse of judgment does not excuse the government for bringing specious identity theft charges against him for the simple act of sharing a link.