February 19, 2008

A Test Case [6:15 pm]

Web Site That Posts Leaked Material Ordered Shut

In a move that legal experts said could present a major test of First Amendment rights in the Internet era, a federal judge in San Francisco on Friday ordered the disabling of a Web site devoted to disclosing confidential information.

The site, Wikileaks.org, invites people to post leaked materials with the goal of discouraging “unethical behavior” by corporations and governments. It has posted documents concerning the rules of engagement for American troops in Iraq, a military manual concerning the operation of prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and other evidence of what it has called corporate waste and wrongdoing.

[...] On Friday, Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Federal District Court in San Francisco granted a permanent injunction ordering Dynadot of San Mateo, Calif., the site’s domain name registrar, to disable the Wikileaks.org domain name. The order had the effect of locking the front door to the Wikileaks.org site — a largely ineffectual action that kept back doors to the site, and several copies of it, available to sophisticated Web users who knew where to look.

Later — an NYTimes editorial: Stifling Online Speech

In a second order, the judge directed Wikileaks not to distribute the bank documents. That was a “prior restraint” on speech, something the courts almost always find violates the First Amendment. If the employee did not have a right to the documents and the bank was injured as a result, a suit against the leaker for monetary damages should be sufficient.

Much of the law governing the Internet remains unsettled. Still, the free speech burdens of closing down a journalistic Web site are just as serious as closing down a print publication, and courts should tread carefully.

For now, the lawsuit appears to have backfired, bringing worldwide publicity to the documents. Enterprising Internet users have found ways to get to the site. We hope it will also educate judges and the public about the importance of giving full protection to online speech.

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