SAN FRANCISCO - The shutdown of a website that publishes anonymous whistleblower documents was ordered last week by a federal judge in San Francisco, a move legal experts say raises First Amendment concerns.
The site, Wikileaks.org, allowed users to post confidential material in an effort to discourage what it called "unethical behavior" by corporations and government agencies. Items posted on the site prior to its Feb. 15 disabling included documents showing the rules of engagement for American troops in Iraq and a military manual for the operation of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
"I think we are seeing the limits of a jurisdiction-based judicial system as it faces a relatively borderless Internet," David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project, told The Christian Science Monitor.
Julius Baer Bank, based in the Cayman Islands, sought an injunction against Dynadot, the domain registrar for the site, claiming a disgruntled former employee had launched a "harassment and terror campaign" that included posting stolen documents from the bank. The motion said the documents were posted in violation of a confidentiality agreement and banking laws.
According to Wikileaks, the documents "allegedly reveal secret Julius Baer trust structures used for asset hiding, money laundering and tax evasion."
Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White granted a permanent injunction, ordering Dynadot to disable to site and preventing the organization from transferring the name to another register.
Ardia told The Christian Science Monitor that the court orders are stunningly broad and suggest a lack of seriousness about the First Amendment. Rather than addressing just the handful of bank documents brought up by the case, White tried to shut down the entire Wikileaks site, which claims to have received more than 1.2 million documents "from dissident communities and anonymous sources."
In a statement on its site, Wikileaks compared White's orders to ones eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971. In that case, the federal government sought to forbid The New York Times and The Washington Post's publication of a secret history of the Vietnam War.
"The Wikileaks injunction is the equivalent of forcing The Times' printers to print blank pages and its power company to turn off press power," Wikileaks said, referring to the order that sought to disable the entire site.
Ardia said White's order to disable the entire site "is clearly not constitutional."
"There is no justification under the First Amendment for shutting down an entire website," he said.
Wikileaks said it was founded by dissidents in China and journalists, mathematicians and computer specialists in the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa.