Judge Strikes Down Wikileaks Injunction

A federal court today struck down an injunction against Wikileaks, reversing his earlier ruling that effectively blocked access to the muckraking site through its U.S. domain name in a lawsuit brought by a Swiss bank.

Judge Jeffrey White’s ruling erases all domain-name restrictions on Wikileaks, the site created for anonymous whistle-blowers to post documents detailing corporate improprieties or government misconduct.

Earlier this month, Julius Baer Bank and Trust brought a lawsuit against Wikileaks and its domain registrar, Dynadot, claiming that the site had posted fraudulent documents that revealed personal information about customers of its Cayman Islands subsidiary.

The resulting injunction became a cause célèbre among free-speech advocates and news organizations. Earlier this week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed motions to intervene on behalf of Wikileaks to fight the injunction.

“We’re very pleased that Judge White recognized the serious constitutional concerns raised by his earlier orders,” said EFF senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman in a statement.

“Attempting to interfere with the operation of an entire Web site because you have a dispute over some of its content is never the right approach,” Zimmerman said. “Disabling access to an Internet domain in an effort to prevent the world from accessing a handful of widely discussed documents is not only unconstitutional — it simply won’t work.”

The disputed documents in today’s case detailed evidence of extremely wealthy clients washing money through illegal offshore tax shelters set up through Baer Julius. The bank claimed the documents were forged, leaked by Rudolf Elmer, a former deputy director of the Cayman Islands office.

Today’s hearing had been originally slated to address the relatively narrow matter of the leaked documents and whether to uphold the injunction, but it ballooned into a much broader debate over free speech and the Internet.

“The court’s order shuts down and locks up the domain name Wikileaks.org permanently, effectively interfering with the public’s ability to access the materials on the Web site as easily as possible,” said Aden Fine, attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group in a statement earlier this week.

“The public has a right to receive information and ideas, especially ones concerning the public interest,” Fine said. “This injunction ignores that vital First Amendment principle.”

Last year, a U.S. Army manual detailing treatment of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison surfaced on Wikileaks. The ACLU said its request to obtain that same document from the government through the Freedom of Information Act had been denied.

In addition to the activist groups, the judge also invited several media organizations and industry groups that have taken an interest in the case to appear as amicus curiae in today’s hearings. Among the parties invited were the Associated Press, the Newspaper Association of America and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Media organizations.

White asked the parties to weigh in on whether the “right to privacy trumps the freedom of access to information,” citing several previous cases that had also examined the balance between privacy rights and First Amendment protections.

Julius Baer claimed that the case had “nothing whatsoever to do with censorship of the First Amendment.” Instead, the bank said that it merely sought legal relief to prevent the publication of bank records that compromise its customers’ privacy.

Ultimately, Judge White determined that the First Amendment implications were too troubling to ignore. In dissolving the injunction, White wrote that “it is clear that in all but the most exceptional circumstances, an injunction restricting speech pending final resolution of the constitutional concerns is impermissible.”

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