Freedom of Speech for Web Publishers and Citizen Journalists
Posting Leaked Documents
Your web publishing venture just got access to a leaked document that you would love to publish. But before you hit that "Post" button, here are a few things to consider.
As an online publisher, there is nothing like getting a scoop.
Exclusive information is a high value objective that can be leveraged to increase your site's credibility, improve traffic, and boost your search engine ranking.
But securing a scoop is becoming more and more difficult in an age when information is quickly disseminated with a single mouse click. So leaked documents have become an increasingly popular source of exclusive information. However, using leaked materials has dangers and drawbacks, especially for web publishers who lack the legal resources and industry support of a large news outlet.
In 2010, WikiLeaks published thousands of previously classified government documents related to the war in Iraq. Unlike other media reports on Iraq, WikiLeaks' material didn't stem from a Freedom of Information Act request or other public record, but from a leak within the military. As a consequence, issues were raised about the legality of the information that was posted. Although it seems that WikiLeaks is in the clear (for now), they took a beating in the media.
Clearly, leaked information has its place in web publishing. But it's critical for online publishers to carefully assess the issues and to understand what they're in for before they decide to go public with leaked information, whether it comes from a corporation or a government agency.
- Illegally obtained documents. One of your biggest concerns about publishing leaked content should be how your source obtained the information. If the source obtained the information through illegal means, you could be indicted as an accomplice. You should also be aware of the fact that your source will face consequences (e.g. termination) for leaking documents - even if you're legally in the clear.
- Prior restraint issues. It's not uncommon for the government to implement prior restraint mechanisms to limit the publication of information through licensing or temporary restraining orders. Although the courts have a negative view of prior restraint activities, leaked documents have the potential to create substantial legal entanglements related to prior constraint.
- Shield laws. In some states, traditional journalists have the benefit of shield laws that protect the anonymity of their sources - a helpful tool when publishing leaked material. Bloggers, citizen journalists, and most web publishers don't enjoy the same protection, so it's smart to have a conversation with your attorney before you post leaked content.
- Libel laws. Libel (written defamation) is not protected under the first amendment. If the leaked material contains groundless accusations that damage someone else's reputation, you can (and probably will) be held legally responsible.
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