Government Drops Key Charges in UT Law Civil Rights Clinic Case
The Civil Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law has been working a high-profile criminal case in Dallas, defending activist-journalist Barrett Brown. In an extremely rare turn of events, the United States government voluntarily dismissed on Wednesday all but one of the 12 charges against Brown in an indictment accusing him of trafficking data.
In a case that achieved international notoriety with regards to its impact on online speech, Brown was alleged to have copy/pasted a hyperlink from an Internet chat room known to be used by the online group “Anonymous,” to another chat room called Project PM. The hyperlink pointed to a website that contained data obtained by hackers from the Austin-based private intelligence firm Stratfor Forecasting.
The government’s dismissal happened just two days after a team of defense attorneys including representatives and four students from the UT Law Civil Rights Clinic, filed a motion to dismiss key claims concerning the copy/pasting of a hyperlink, which underpin the entire case.
“The brief addresses several novel issues, and makes three basic arguments,” said lead attorney for the defense Ahmed Ghappour, clinical instructor at UT Law and director of the National Security Defense Project.
According to the legal document, the allegations in the indictment do not meet the standard of the charging statutes, with the key question being whether merely pasting a link is equivocal to “transferring” the “content” it points to. Its second argument is, even if the court construes the statute so that sharing a publicly available link is equivocal to transferring the content, then that law violates the First Amendment. Finally, the brief states that the charging statutes are void for vagueness and chills speech in violation of the First Amendment.
“The charges never should have been brought in the first place,” said Ghappour. “I think the government did the right thing by dropping them, but it’s too early to say ‘mission accomplished.’”
Still, the dismissal of the key charges is a huge victory in a case with important free speech implications and an international profile. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was set to file an amicus on behalf of several mainstream journalist organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, PEN America and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In April of 2012, Brown was referred to Ghappour and Clinical Professor Ranjana Natarajan, who directs the Civil Rights Clinic. Recognizing the potential ramifications of the charges, they took on the case along with outside counsel Lt. Cmd. (Ret.) Charlie Swift (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld).
“What is most concerning about Barrett’s case is the disconnect between his conduct and the charged crime,” said Ghappour, in a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “He copy-pasted a publicly available link containing publicly available data that he was researching in his capacity as a journalist. The charges require twisting the relevant statutes beyond recognition and have serious implications for journalists as well as academics.”
Third year UT Law student Kali Cohn worked on Brown’s case spring and fall 2013 as a Civil Rights Clinic student and credits Ghappour and Natarajan for identifying cases with “incredible clients and cutting-edge legal issues” for students to learn from. She met Brown in the fall. “It was really important to me to be able to meet Barrett; we spent so much time reconstructing such a short snippet of his life, and it was critical to have a chance to meet him and hear about the events from him in the flesh, rather than from the words that he had typed or the articles he had penned.”
Eleanor Simpson, a second year law student, and Drew Wallenstein, a third year law student, said the constitutional issues surrounding Brown’s case have been fascinating to research and analyze. Clinic students researched case law, reviewed terabytes of discovery and aided in drafting this and other motions in the case.
“As someone with an interest in legal issues surrounding technology, there were a lot of fascinating legal areas to work on and to think deeply about,” said Wallenstein. “The nice thing about the Civil Rights Clinic is that Ahmed and Ranjana really take the students work and input seriously, so I have always felt that I have been able to contribute significantly to the different aspects of the case. It has really been a wonderful experience getting to work on it for the past two semesters.”
Brown has been in federal custody since his arrest in 2012. He still faces trial for six other charges, for which motions to dismiss are currently pending before the court. The Civil Rights Clinic and four students — Simpson, Wallenstein, Xiaowen Tang and Ethan Ranis — are preparing for hearings on those motions and, in the event they are denied, two upcoming trials in April and May. Students will get to participate in the next phase of the case, including the upcoming trials.