Law Prof Smacks Down CNN Chris Cuomo’s Claim That It’s Illegal To Possess Wikileaks Emails

A statement made by CNN’s Chris Cuomo regarding Wikileaks has drawn quite a bit of attention, especially online in talks forums like Reddit. Cuomo said the controversial remarks while introducing a segment discussing some of the emails hacked from Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta.

“Remember, it’s illegal to possess these stolen documents. It’s different for the media,” Cuomo said.


George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley took to his blog to refute the claims that it would be illegal for voters to, basically, read/download the Wikileak emails:

It is true that possession of stolen items is a crime and documents can be treated as stolen items. However, this material has already been released and it is doubtful that downloading widely available material (particularly in a matter of great public interest) would be seen as prosecutable possession. Whoever had original possession has released them widely to the public like throwing copies out a window by the thousands. Whatever crime is alleged, it will be directed at the original hacker and not the public. Just downloading and reading public available material is unlikely to be viewed as a crime unless you use material to steal someone’s identity or commit a collateral crime. Otherwise, possession of the Pentagon Papers would lead to the arrest of tens of thousands of citizens.

More importantly, most people do not download these documents but read them on line and there is no actionable crime in reading the material from any of the myriad of sites featuring the Wikileaks documents.

Now even Wikileaks has weighed in:

Turley did add that Cuomo was right when he said the media has an exception. In Bartnicki v. Vopper, the Supreme Court addressed this very issue. The Justices were assessing whether a radio personality could be held liable for playing illegally intercepted phone calls on the radio. The Court held the First Amendment protected the disclosure of the intercepted communications by parties who didn’t participate in the illegal act.

Turley concedes that there are technical arguments that downloading the material could be a crime. “The weight of the existing case law militates heavily against the legal threat described on CNN,” he wrote.

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