Federal prosecutors in Texas earlier this week dropped several controversial charges against author and journalist Barrett Brown in a case civil liberty groups fear could chill free speech.
The dropped charges stem from Brown having copied and pasted a link in a chat room containing thousands of stolen credit card information and other material from Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company, which was hacked in December 2012.
Brown’s supporters, which include civil liberty groups and high-profile journalists, most notably, Glenn Greenwald of NSA leak fame, have criticized the government for seeking to criminalize the sharing of already publicly available information. Brown was not involved in the hack against Stratfor, which the FBI knew about as early as Dec. 6, 2011, and it was the agency that allegedly orchestrated the hack through a confidential informant, according to a court filing by Brown’s attorneys.
The government’s decision to drop counts one and three through 12 came one day after Brown’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss those charges. Prosecutors did not explain in the motion why they dropped the counts.
“The criminalization of Mr. Brown’s speech (by republishing the hyperlink) is an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment because it regulates pure political speech based on its content,” his lawyers wrote in the motion.
Brown’s attorneys go on to say that the charges “would be unconstitutionally overbroad and chill speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
Brown, whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Huffington Post and Vanity Fair, among other media outlets, remains accused of concealing two laptops and for threatening an FBI agent and his family in a YouTube video. The dropped charges cut a considerable amount of time from Brown’s potential sentence, but he still faces 70 years in prison, according to reports.
According to the indictment, Brown allegedly called the FBI agent a “fucking chicken shit little faggot cocksucker.” He also alleged that the agent is “a criminal, who is involved in a criminal conspiracy.”
The 32-year-old journalist and satirist founded Project PM, a crowdsourcing tool, in 2009. His attorneys have described the website as a “collaborative web application” which allows others to conduct research using publicly available materials—including information obtained from leakers and hackers, according to court documents.
Brown’s attorney, Ahmed Ghappour, told the Guardian that the government did “the right thing dropping the charges.”
“We will continue to fight for Barrett every way we can,” he added.