Free Speech Can Cost Prison Time: The Barrett Brown Story
The United States Constitution was written in the heady days following the American revolution, which was a break from what the founders deemed a corrupt, despotic bastion of totalitarianism. Their contention was not without foundation — elsewhere in the British empire, the Irish were banned from even speaking their native language. Freedom of expression as a guaranteed right was a new idea which would be continually challenged and upheld for the next couple hundred years.
What Is That Oath For?
All officers of the federal government, including the FBI, are dutifully sworn to uphold the constitution, including the Bill of Rights, the first item of which is protects freedom of speech and of the press. It reads like so:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is why the case of Barett Brown, commented on by WikiLeaks founder and old-school hacker Julian Assange recently, is so perplexing. It is an example of free speech costing one family a great deal, with Brown’s mother having done six months probation for not readily handing over her journalist son’s notebooks and Brown spending the last two years in a jail cell waiting to find out what happens next.
Barrett Brown is said to have been associated with the hacktivist (politicized hacker) group Anonymous and when Hector Monsegur of an associated group, LulzSec, decided to co-operate with authorities after his own apprehension, he named Brown as someone who possessed a great deal of evidence privy to his investigation. Subsequently in March, 2012, both his apartment and his mother’s house were raided by the FBI. His mother hid her son’s notebooks and later did the previously mentioned sentence of probation. The FBI took Brown’s laptops and this led him to create a series of 2YouTube videos2 in which he demanded his property back. The agent he named, Robert Smith, apparently interpreted the videos as a threat and Brown was then arrested September 12th. He so happened to have been on a video chat which was recorded.
The three videos entitled “Why FBI Agent Robert Smith Has Two Weeks To Send my Property Back” span about 45 minutes and during them Brown takes the time to give the history of the Anonymous movement as he saw it. In video three, he finally makes his purpose plain:
Agent Robert Smith noted, when he came to my f—ing house, when he came to my f—ing mom’s house rather in this case, after already having raided my house […] that they didn’t put up the information or tell anyone about me being raided so the address wouldn’t get out to the Zetas because the Zetas are a danger to me […] [someone] eventually got my actual address and posted it so the Zetas could come kill me if they wanted to. […] If it’s legal when it’s done to me then it’s going to be legal when it’s done to Agent Robert Smith, who is criminal, who is involved in a criminal conspiracy […] that’s why Robert Smith’s life is over. When I say his life is over, I don’t say I’m going to go kill him. I’m going to ruin his life and look into his f—ing kids.
We can assume the threatening part to Agent Smith is the statement that his life is over, but then again, the following sentence clarifies the opposite. It was posted to YouTube the same day Brown was arrested.
Connection to WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks has always been a pro-freedom organization dedicated to exposing the truth about corrupt organizations. According to a post made by founder Julian Assange, Brown is also in trouble for retweeting a quote by Fox News host Bob Beckel, who at the time was calling for the assassination of Assange and associated journalists as the government struggled to classify them as “enemy combatants” due to their blatant leaking of government documents relating to the War on Terror and a number of other things. What Beckel had said was, “dead men can’t leak stuff… illegally shoot the son of a bitch.” According to Assange, this was twisted by the government to mean that Brown was calling for the illegal shooting of an FBI agent:
The most serious claim against Barrett Brown is that six months after the March 6, 2012 FBI raid on his mother’s address he tweeted “illegally shoot the son of a bitch”. It sounds bad. It is a clear incitement to murder. The FBI claim that the “son of a bitch” Barrett was referring to was one of their agents. That is false. The “son of a bitch” is me—and the person who called for my assassination was not Barrett Brown. […] Barrett’s full retweet was “dead men can’t leak stuff… illegally shoot the son of a bitch”. The quote is from Fox news host Bob Beckel, who called for my assassination—an injustice that Barrett was trying to draw attention to.
Overall, the charges against Brown are in violation of the first amendment as discussed earlier in this article, and all of the agents involved in bringing them are also in direct violation thereof. The use of leaked documents and linking to such documents is, in fact, protected speech. Expressing frustration at government harassment and threatening to use explicitly legal means to counter-harass those responsible for it, while foolish, is also legal. In an actually free society, this would not be something a court would have to decide.
Not much more is known about the case of Brown since in 2013 his legal defense was gagged from discussing or clarifying the case any further for the public. By the grace of God, this is still an involved if corrupt process, not a simple matter of course, but the fact that it was done is nothing if not troubling. Brown’s next court date is in January and his sentencing for “accessory after the fact in the unauthorized access to a protected computer” will take place then.
Image from Evan McCaffrey and Shutterstock.