MANHATTAN (CN) – Launching a fundraising drive in the face of mounting legal troubles, WikiLeaks filed its first court papers ever in a New York federal court on Friday, calling the Democratic Party’s conspiracy lawsuit over the 2016 election a threat to freedom of the press.
“Even the prospect of liability at all, much less RICO treble damages, for publication of truthful information of public interest would have a devastating chilling effect on the press’s exercise of constitutionally protected speech,” WikiLeaks attorney Joshua L. Dratel wrote in a 25-page brief.
“It would quickly drive independent and less financially secure media organizations – and ultimately even the titans – as well as individual journalists at every level everywhere, from reporting and publishing altogether,” the brief continues. “All that would remain would be a shell of the First Amendment practiced by a cowed and self-censoring media, intimidated by the fear of lawsuits designed to deprive the public of its right to information about powerful public figures and entities.”
Earlier this year, the DNC filed a federal lawsuit accusing WikiLeaks of conspiring with Russian intelligence and the Trump campaign to act as a “racketeering enterprise” during the 2016 presidential election, implicating 15 people and entities.
“The conspiracy constituted an act of previously unimaginable treachery: the campaign of the presidential nominee of a major party in league with a hostile foreign power to bolster its own chance to win the presidency,” the April 20 complaint states.
WikiLeaks’ motion to dismiss draws connections between its nonprofit website and the paper of record, the New York Times, by repeatedly referencing the Times’ Deputy General Counsel David McCraw, who said in July at the Ninth Circuit’s annual judicial conference that the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “would be a very, very bad precedent for publishers.”
“From everything I know, he’s sort of in a classic publisher’s position and I think the law would have a very hard time drawing a distinction between The New York Times and WikiLeaks,” McCraw said.
WikiLeaks argues in Friday’s filing that it was neither the first nor the exclusive vehicle for the leaks at issue, noting that DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 made the initial releases in part through other outlets such as WordPress.
A dozen Russian military officers alleged to be behind DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 were indicted by Department of Justice earlier this year in connection with interference in the 2016 presidential election and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
WikiLeaks also insists that it is not subject to New York’s “long-arm statute,” concluding that “exercising jurisdiction over WikiLeaks would offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.”
The organization has started a GoFundMe campaign for the case with the tagline: “Help WikiLeaks Fight the DNC.”
WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristenn Hrafnsson said in a statement Friday that the case “is a litmus test for press freedoms.”
“The suit claims that the scandalous emails of powerful political operatives are ‘trade secrets’ and cannot be published. If this precedent is set it will be the end of serious journalism as we know it,” Hrafnsson said.
The DNC’s deputy communications director Adrienne Watson told WikiLeaks to consider its allies before adopting the mantle of free speech.
“WikiLeaks engaged in an unlawful conspiracy with a hostile foreign power, and illegal activity isn’t protected by the First Amendment,” Watson said. “Beyond being wrong on the law, WikiLeaks’ attempt to make this into a defense of press freedoms is offensive. The organization has allied itself with an autocratic regime that kills journalists, and together they helped elect a U.S. president whose hostility towards the free press has no precedent in American history.”
WikiLeaks’ bid to dismiss the DNC lawsuit came amid a flurry of similar motions by its co-defendants, including President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump campaign advisor George Papadapoulos, Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone and brothers Emin and Aras Agalarovs.
The Agalarovs are Azeri-Russian oligarchs whose ties to Trump date back to the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, a relationship that ultimately led to the fateful meeting three years later at Trump Tower.
Attended by Kushner, Donald Trump, Jr., and disgraced ex-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort – and a Kremlin-linked attorney intent on sanctions relief for Russia – the Democrats call the June 9, 2016, meeting a crucial stage of a plot by the Trump campaign to seek opposition research on Hillary Clinton from Russia.
WikiLeaks started publishing the DNC’s hacked emails the next month, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged Russian intelligence officials with being behind the cyberattack.