An activist-journalist from Dallas has been facing more than 100 years in prison over allegations he posted a hyperlink to hacked material.
However, the U.S. attorney’s office has now filed a motion to dismiss the bulk of its criminal case against Barrett Brown who has claimed to be the spokesman for the hacking group Anonymous.
The case illustrates the fine line cases like this tread between the right to free speech and Draconian penalties.
The Dallas Morning News reported prosecutors have asked a federal judge to dismiss all but one of the charges brought against Barrett Brown who is accused of trafficking in data, including credit card numbers allegedly stolen from Statfor, a private intelligence firm.
His indictment said he posted a link to the data online. He faced charges of device fraud and aggravated identity theft in a case that has received international attention for its implications for free speech.
On Tuesday, Brown’s defense team filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, claiming the government had failed to show any proof that Brown committed a crime.
The U.S. attorney’s office has now filed a motion to dismiss the charges linked to the hyperlink that pointed readers to online files where they could gain access to thousands of stolen credit card numbers.
“Besides carrying the threat of significant jail time for Brown, the charges raised broader First Amendment issues: Are journalists complicit in a crime when they point people to illicit information?” the Washington Post reported.
Lawyers acting for Brown said the link he posted had already been made public, and that the government’s case was a clear violation of the Constitutional right of free speech.
Brown has been in federal custody since his arrest in 2012. He still faces two additional federal cases against him.
He is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice by concealing evidence, related to an FBI raid on his Dallas apartment in 2012. He also faces charges related to alleged threats he made against an FBI agent.
Brown, 32, is being held in Texas. His trials were scheduled for 28 April and 19 May. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports the maximum sentences on Brown’s remaining charges could amount to 70 years.
Federal crimes like this carry heavy sentences. The prosecutions are also controversial. The charges related to the publishing of a hyperlink raised serious concerns for all people who publish information on the Internet.
Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment rights expert told The Guardian, the Brown case raised serious issues about the potential criminalization of linking. “If we can be held criminally liable for hyperlinking to a website, the implications are profound. Are we to be expected to understand everything about a site before we link to it – that seems overly burdensome,” he said.