Freedom of Information: The leaks go on

A federal court judge says prior Wikileaks ruling was unconstitutional

In what may be the last act of a quickly unfolding drama, Swiss banking giant Julius Baer has dropped its lawsuit against Wikileaks, an anonymous whistle-blower Web site, and Dynadot LLC, the site's registrar. Baer's attorneys had sought to shut down Wikileaks through a permanent injunction for hosting potentially damaging material about the bank's activities in the Grand Cayman Islands.

The bank's decision last week follows its legal defeat Feb. 29 in which San Francisco federal court judge Jeffrey S. White withdrew his ruling to halt the US version of the Web site — and to also stop information from the site from being transferred to another server.

White weighed arguments from both sides and said his withdrawal of the order against Wikileaks still raises serious issues about the extent of jurisdiction any US court has over the Internet. He essentially agreed that prior restraint of the site was unconstitutional, and that it could create a "chilling effect" on future free speech cases. He bowed to arguments from defense attorneys and said his prior order raises questions regarding "possible infringement of protections afforded to the public by the First Amendment."

The anonymous forces of Wikileaks seemed to have braced for the legal blow. Within hours of the Feb. 15 takedown order by White, those in the know could access the site by entering the IP address, which is run on a server in Sweden and on other servers around the world.

While no official Wikileaks defendant ever materialized because its operators remain a secret, the preliminary injunction order set off a firestorm of criticism from free speech advocates. One after another, lawyers from the ACLU's San Francisco chapter, Public Citizen in Washington D.C., and nearly a dozen civil rights organizations rushed to intervene and defend the site.

Shutting down the site is akin to "locking the doors of The New York Times," said Julie Turner, an attorney who represented Wikileaks in prelitigation matters.

"I think this was a textbook example of what not to do," said media law attorney Thomas Burke of the bank's efforts to seek a prior restraint. "This just completely backfired and garnered international attention."

The documents posted on Wikileaks have been used as the basis for major news stories on subjects such as the treatment of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, the US military's rules of engagement in Iraq, and corruption by Kenya's former president. And instead of concealing documents, the case has drawn a maelstrom of attention to the bank's alleged dealings, and it raises big questions about freedom of speech on the Internet.

In their filing, Julius Baer attorneys said they still reserve the right to consider filing suit in the same court or elsewhere and are considering the company's legal options. The bank's spokesperson, Jenna Agins, declined a Guardian request for comments.

Founded in 2006 by Chinese dissidents, journalists, and tech gurus, Wikileaks hosts 1.2 million leaked documents that aim to expose government and corporate wrongdoing. Anonymous site creators say they're developing an uncensorable system for "untraceable mass document leaking and analysis" and are ready to fight any legal attack.

Wikileaks may have evaded its censors this time, but the latest case portends the vulnerability of such sites and those involved in them. Julius Baer's attorneys admitted to the judge they had a hard time tracking down a Wikileaks representative. So they went after Daniel Matthews, a Stanford grad student. According to the bank's court filing, the bank's attorneys found his name on a Facebook page listing him as an "officer" of Wikileaks and summoned him to court.

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