Federal prosecutors are dismissing 11 of the 17 counts against Barrett Brown, an American journalist and activist who has spent almost two years behind bars in Texas.
United States Attorney Sarah R. Saldana filed paperwork on Wednesday requesting that the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas throw out count one and counts three through 12 from two of the criminal indictments unsealed against Brown in 2012.
Now, he’ll face no more than a maximum of 70 years in prison if he’s found guilty of the remaining charges: making threats over the internet, conspiracy to publish personal information, retaliation against a federal official, access device fraud and two counts of obstruction.
Previously, Brown’s lawyers sought dismissal based on the grounds of infringing upon Brown’s First Amendment rights. Before the dismissal, he faced more than 100 years in prison for posting a hyperlink to hacked material.
The main allegation against Brown was that he posted a hyperlink in an internet chat room to a site that contained hacked material from Stratfor, the private intelligence firm. Included in the hack were 860,000 e-mail addresses for Stratfor subscribers and 60,000 credit card details.
According to The Guardian, in a legal memorandum lodged with a federal court in Dallas, Texas on Tuesday, Brown’s lawyers argued that the charges against him should be dropped ahead of trial because they were too vague and were in breach of his constitutional right to free speech. By hyperlinking to the hacked material, Brown did not “transfer” the stolen information as he arguably would have done had he embedded the link on his web page, but merely created a path to files that had already been published elsewhere that were in the public domain.
Upon hearing that the majority of the counts against Brown were being dropped, Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Jennifer Lynch and colleague Hanni Fakhoury issued a joint statement expressing their relief.
“In prosecuting Brown, the government sought to criminalize a routine practice of journalism — linking to external sources — which is a textbook violation of free speech protected by the First Amendment,” they wrote. “Although this motion is good news for Brown, the unnecessary and unwarranted prosecution has already done much damage; not only has it harmed Brown, the prosecution — and the threat of prosecution it raised for all journalists — has chilled speech on the Internet. We hope that this dismissal of charges indicates a change in the Department of Justice priorities. If not, we will be ready to step in and defend free speech.”
Kevin Gallagher, the director of the Free Barrett Brown support network, called the prosecution’s decision “unexpected and amazing,” but acknowledged that the government’s argument never should have been allowed to proceed to begin with.
“The charges against Barrett Brown for linking were flawed from the beginning. In the face of a rigorous legal challenge mounted by his defense, the government has finally recognized it and signaled that this is a battle they don’t want to fight,” he said in a statement.