On April 28, the U.S. government’s trial against journalist Barrett Brown will open in Texas. The outcome of the trial could not only impact the freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of association in the United States, but also a journalist’s ability to disclose information that is illegally obtained, such as the information National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden provided to journalist Glenn Greenwald and others.
Brown is currently facing some 70 years in prison for threatening the family of an FBI officer who raided his mother’s home and allegedly attempting to hide the evidence on his laptops from federal investigators.
In March, however, he was facing a sentence of more than 100 years. On March 5, federal prosecutors decided to dismiss 11 of the 17 charges against Brown, including a charge that he was directly involved in a data breach of the U.S. intelligence contractor commonly known as Stratfor. The dismissal of those 11 charges cut about 35 years off Brown’s potential prison sentence, which was an improvement but still not enough for Brown’s supporters.
This particular charge was the most controversial Brown faced, since his attorneys — Ahmed Ghappour and Charles Swift — argued that the journalist merely linked to the stolen documents that contained 860,000 email addresses and passwords, as well as the credit card information of more than 60,000 people, in order to expose the tangled web between government contractors and the agencies for which they work.
“Republishing a hyperlink does not itself move, convey, select, place or otherwise transfer, a file or document from one location to another,” Brown’s attorney argued.
Brown’s punishment for a crime he didn’t commit was particularly puzzling, given that it is known who did publish the stolen Stratfor documents. Anonymous hacktivist Jeremy Hammond is the one who actually stole that information. He’s spending 10 years in prison for his involvement, prompting some to ask why Brown could face such a long sentence.
Even the remaining charges Brown faces related to his threats against an FBI officer seem overly harsh, considering that in 2010, a man who threatened to blow up the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building in Washington, D.C., was only sentenced to 3-and-a-half years in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release. And in 2012, a man in Pennsylvania was sentenced to 18 months in prison after he threatened to kill an FBI agent.
Brown reportedly only threatened an FBI agent in a non-violent manner in September 2012 after the FBI went after his mother in order to build a case against him for posting links to documents that were once classified on his website, ProjectPM.
Brown’s harsh sentencing may be a result of his open support for the online hacktivist group Anonymous. He advocated for the group, but was not a spokesperson for it, as some media outlets have reported.
Brown’s advocacy journalism has not only led to a conversation about the role of the press in a democracy, but it has also prompted some such as attorney Jason Flores-Williams to compare the government’s “over-prosecution” of Brown to the Red Scare of the 1950s.
Since a judge placed a gag order on Brown last year prohibiting him from communicating with the press about his case, it could be argued that is why Brown’s case has failed to attract the attention of the mass media and the majority of the American public.
But even if Brown was allowed to talk to the press, which he has sort of done through his lawyers and activists, it’s not known how far the government would go to prevent the truth from coming out. However, based on the government’s treatment of whistleblowers such as Snowden and Pfc. Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, it’s likely the public has a fairly good sense of what the government may do to keep information from surfacing.
How the justice system treats Brown could either result in a further decline of U.S. press freedoms or the promotion of legislation to ensure protection for journalists.
“If independent journalists like Brown cannot publish the truth without becoming a target of extremely selective and vindictive prosecution, the concept of freedom of the press which is vital for democracy is as good as dead,” said Kevin Gallagher, founder and director of the Free Barrett Brown organization.
Due to the rampant censorship of the press in the U.S., Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced in its annual Press Freedom Index that the U.S. fell 15 spots in 2014, from 32nd place to 46th, for most press freedoms. This drop was reportedly one of the most dramatic declines in freedoms of any nation included in the index. The only other “first-world” countries to appear lower on the list than the U.S. were Italy and Japan.