In its latest attack on the free speech, the Obama Administration has secured a gag order to prevent activist-journalist Barrett Brown and his lawyers from discussing his work exposing online surveillance by the Administration. On this occasion, however, Eric Holder and the Obama Administration convinced a federal judge to go along. U.S. District Judge Sam Lindsay in Dallas Texas has issued a sweeping gag order to prevent not just Brown but his legal team from discussing the online surveillance. The Justice Department insisted on the order to protect Brown. That’s right, they insist that, if Brown discussed the abusive surveillance by the Obama Administration, it would endanger his right to a fair trial.
Federal judges have increasing issued gag orders in cases as a standard measure when it was once used only in rare cases. I have long been a critic of the orders which deny basic free speech rights and deny defendants and their counsel to answer damaging allegations in the public.
This order however is particularly problematic. Brown, 32, is facing 105 years in prison after his arrest last year. He writes on government online spying and has been a vocal critic of the Administration and its attack on privacy. The Obama Administration threw the book at him in a case that reminds many of Aaron Swartz case. Perhaps due to the blowback on the suicide of the Swartz case and criticism of his unrelenting prosecution, the Justice Department has tried to cut off Brown and his team from the media.
The court order prohibits Brown and his defense team, as well as prosecutors, from making “any statement to members of any television, radio, newspaper, magazine, internet (including, but not limited to, bloggers), or other media organization about this case, other than matters of public interest.” The reason is purportedly to protect Brown’s right to an unbiased jury. However, the order prevents him from writing about his own case. I believe such a limitation would have been viewed as inherently abusive by the Framers and tyrannical by writers like Thomas Paine.
Brown had been looking at hacked emails by Anonymous from the computer system of a private security firm, HB Gary. He wrote about an effort to destroy the reputations of WikiLeaks supporters and prominent liberal journalists and activists. In looking at other emails hacked from the private intelligence company Stratfor, Brown posted a link in a chat room that connected users to Stratfor documents. The documents included email addresses and credit card numbers belonging to Stratfor subscribers. He was charged with disseminating stolen information that simply linked to the site — a crime that could transform the Internet and radically reduce sites that challenge the government. If the Obama Administration is successful, it could prosecute anyone linked to sites containing Snowden documents or other exposed surveillance.
The Administration is complaining that Brown is working with the media to “manipulate the public through press and social media comments”. In other words, it has not been successful in suppressing discussion of a case where it could criminalize the simple act of linking to anti-government sites.
The case is extremely important to free speech and the Administration is seeking to establish a new crime that would curtail the use of the Internet to challenge it and future Presidents. It is worth following and talking about . . . except of course for Brown himself who is expected to remain silent as the Administration tries to put him away for 100 years.