U.S. judge withdraws injunction,
reinstates whistleblower website

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Published on March 01, 2008 with No Comments

By Julia Cheever

February 29, 2008

A federal judge in San Francisco today withdrew a permanent injunction he issued Feb. 15 that required a San Mateo-based domain registrar to shut down the American version of a whistleblower Web site in its entirety.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White also turned down a bid by a Swiss bank for a separate preliminary injunction that would have barred the site, wikileaks.org, from doing anything to spread allegedly stolen confidential information about the bank’s customers.

White said the case raised “serious questions about prior restraint” of the media and “possible violations of the First Amendment” constitutional right to free speech.

He said he was revisiting his earlier ruling because “the court has the obligation to get it right.”

“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution,” White said.

Wikileaks, a self-described “transparency group,” posts leaks of international government and corporate documents that are believed by those who submit the documents to show wrongdoing or a need for reform.

The case began when Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd. of Switzerland, sued the group Feb. 6 for posting allegedly stolen confidential information about bank customers’ accounts in the Cayman Islands. Wikileaks alleged the documents reveal trust structures used for asset hiding, money laundering and tax evasion.

Dynadot LLC., a small San Mateo-based Internet name registrar that registered the group’s U.S. domain name, was also named in the suit.

When no one showed up in court to represent Wikileaks, White issued a permanent injunction agreed to by the bank and Dynadot that shut down the entire American version of the site.

The order turned out not to be effective, however, because users could still see the site through similar domain names registered in other countries.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen civil liberties and media groups sought to join the case, arguing that the broad injunction was an unconstitutional prior restraint on publication and violated readers’ First Amendment rights.

White at the end of today’s hearing urged the bank and its lawyers to “take a deep breath” and consider a different route for pursuing their claims.

He said he will consider motions to dismiss the lawsuit at the next hearing in the case on May 16.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ann Brick said, “I think the court took these issues very seriously and understood the limits that the First Amendment places on what courts can to do deprive the public of the right to know.”

Evan Spiegel, a lawyer for the bank, said, “This case was about the bank protecting the rights of its customers against the illegal dissemination of personal information.”

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