There was an interesting segment on CNN last week where CNN anchor Chris Cuomo reminds viewers for it is illegal for them to “possess” Wikileaks material and that, as a result, they will have to rely on the media to tell them what is in these documents. The legal assertion is dubious, but the political implications are even more concerning. Polls show that many voters view the media as biased and this is a particularly strong view among supporters of Donald Trump who view CNN and other networks openly supporting Clinton or attacking Trump. More importantly, the mainstream media has reported relatively little from the Wikileaks material and has not delved deeply into their implications, including embarrassing emails showing reporters coordinating with the Clinton campaign and supposedly “neutral” media figures like Donna Brazile, formerly with CNN, allegedly slipping advance question material to Hillary Clinton. The credibility of the media is at an all-time low and most voters hardly feel comfortable with this material being reported second-hand or interpreted by the mainstream media. So is it really illegal for voters to have this material?
Cuomo was about to discuss embarrassing emails from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s inbox but he stopped to remind viewers “remember, it’s illegal to possess these stolen documents,” Cuomo says. “It’s different for the media, so everything you’re learning about this, you’re learning from us.”
First, the criticism of Cuomo as trying to keep people from reading this material (which is damaging to Clinton) seems a bit far-fetched. It is more likely that he felt obligated to disclose the uncertain legal status of such documents. However, he overstated the case in my view.
It is true that possession of stolen items is a crime and documents can be treated as stolen items. However, this material has already been released and it is doubtful that downloading widely available material (particularly in a matter of great public interest) would be seen as prosecutable possession. Whoever had original possession has released them widely to the public like throwing copies out a window by the thousands. Whatever crime is alleged, it will be directed at the original hacker and not the public. Just downloading and reading public available material is unlikely to be viewed as a crime unless you use material to steal someone’s identity or commit a collateral crime. Otherwise, possession of the Pentagon Papers would lead to the arrest of tens of thousands of citizens.
More importantly, most people do not download these documents but read them on line and there is no actionable crime in reading the material from any of the myriad of sites featuring the Wikileaks documents.
Cuomo is right about status of reporters being clear and protected. In Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the media is allowed to publish material that may have been obtained illegally and declared a law unconstitutional to the extent that it would make such media use unlawful. The Court reaffirmed the need to protect the first amendment interests and took particular note of the fact that the material was a matter of public interest:
“The Court holds that all of these statutes violate the First Amendment insofar as the illegally intercepted conversation touches upon a matter of “public concern,” an amorphous concept that the Court does not even attempt to define. But the Court’s decision diminishes, rather than enhances, the purposes of the First Amendment, thereby chilling the speech of the millions of Americans who rely upon electronic technology to communicate each day.”
While technical arguments could be made that downloading is a form of possession of stolen documents, it is a dubious argument when the material is widely distributed and a matter of public interest. The weight of the existing case law militates heavily against the legal threat described on CNN.