U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Julian Assange subpoenaed in defamation suit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
September 12, 2020

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
September 12, 2020

In the early hours of July 10, 2016, Seth Rich, a 27-year-old staffer with the Democratic National Committee, was fatally shot while walking to his home in Washington, D.C. His death, while unsolved, is believed to be the result of a robbery gone wrong. It quickly, however, became a flash point for conspiracy theories: that Rich had been behind a DNC email dump to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, and that he’d effectively been assassinated because of it. None of the claims have ever been substantiated.

On March 26, 2018, Rich’s brother, Aaron, filed a defamation suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against a slew of defendants — Texas businessman and then-frequent Fox News guest Ed Butowsky, the Washington Times, America First Media Group and its founder, Matt Couch — who he’d alleged had shown a “reckless disregard for the truth” and falsely linked both himself and his brother to the email leak.

During the course of three years of litigation, attorneys for both sides collectively subpoenaed nearly a dozen news outlets and members of the press. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents all subpoena requests individually; Find a complete overview of the known subpoenas for this case in the blog post, “Nearly a dozen journalists, outlets and third parties subpoenaed in defamation suit.”

In January 2021, both Couch and Butowsky publicly apologized and retracted prior claims made about the Rich brothers, though Butowsky deleted his statement of contrition almost immediately, according to Law & Crime. Couch and Rich reached a settlement agreement on Jan. 19; Butowsky and Rich reached an agreement on March 22. The lawsuit was terminated officially when District Judge Richard Leon granted Rich’s motions to dismiss the charges against the defendants on March 29. The details of the settlement agreements were not made public.

Julian Assange | WikiLeaks founder

In July 2016, some four months before the U.S. presidential election, WikiLeaks “released a trove of 20,000 emails stolen from the servers of the Democratic National Committee,” according to Vox. How WikiLeaks obtained those emails fueled endless speculation around Seth Rich and his death. The WikiLeaks founder proceeded to imply that Rich may have been the source of the leak, but specified that WikiLeaks does not reveal the identities of any of its sources. The outlet was also subpoenaed over the course of the lawsuit, which the Tracker has documented here.

Assange was taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London when Aaron Rich filed the defamation suit, but during the discovery process, he was expelled from the embassy and arrested by British authorities. He remains imprisoned in the U.K. today.

  • July 2018: Rich first attempts to serve a subpoena on Assange.
  • April 2019: Rich’s counsel reaches out to Assange’s criminal defense counsel to request his help in serving the subpoena; the attorney responds that he is not authorized to accept service of the subpoena.
  • Aug. 18, 2019: Couch lists Assange in his initial disclosure statement as someone who is likely to have discoverable information, alleging he “knows the identity of the individual or individuals who leaked the DNC emails to him” and “ knows the identity of the individual or individuals to whom payment was made for the DNC emails.”
  • Nov. 8, 2019: Rich motions that the court issue a letter of request for assistance from the United Kingdom’s court system in requiring Assange to appear for a deposition.
  • Jan. 6, 2020: Butowsky submits his own request for a letter of assistance from the court.
  • Jan. 24, 2020: District Judge Richard Leon denies both Rich’s Nov. 8, 2019, motion and the defendants’ Jan. 6 request.
  • Aug. 13, 2020: Rich files a motion asking Leon to reconsider his denial.
  • Aug. 18, 2020: Leon grants the motion to reconsider his ruling on Rich’s motion.
  • Aug. 24, 2020: The defendants file a similar motion to reconsider so they too can depose Assange.
  • Sept. 12 and Sept. 22, 2020: Leon approves Rich’s and the defendants’ requests for international judicial assistance for the subpoena of Assange, respectively.

Status of Subpoena

  • With the case closed, any outstanding subpoenas would become moot. Assange’s attorneys did not respond to the Tracker’s emailed request for comment, and it is unclear from the court filings alone whether his deposition was completed. Therefore, the Tracker is listing the status of the subpoena as “unknown” until further information is available.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].