U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Tech journalist subpoenaed in ongoing Bitcoin lawsuit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
August 27, 2019
Miami, Florida

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

The Bitcoin logo

— REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
August 27, 2019

Brendan Sullivan, a journalist at Modern Consensus, received a subpoena for all documents and communications between him and Craig Wright, an Australian computer scientist and businessman who has claimed to be the creator of Bitcoin.

Wright is currently the defendant in a lawsuit brought against him by the Estate of David Kleiman, Wright’s late partner. David’s brother, Ira Kleiman, is the executor of the estate and claims Wright attempted to steal his brother’s Bitcoin holdings, now worth approximately $10 billion.

Wright agreed to an interview with Sullivan, giving him a scoop on the case before the courts made an announcement of the judge's order. The next day, on Aug. 27, 2019, someone was waiting outside of Sullivan’s home to serve him the subpoena, according to his article outlining the events.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reviewed the subpoena, which Sullivan posted with his article. It orders him to hand over any documents and communications between him and Wright since 2006 (before Bitcoin was invented), listing out more than 110 items that count as “documents,” including their encrypted WhatsApp and Signal messages, every social media conversation, interview notes and transcripts, drafts of his article and any relevant documents protected by computer encryption.

“I’m a journalist and the court has no right to any of my files, notes, thoughts or personal belongings. They are not getting anything from me,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan told the Tracker that he refused to attend the deposition hearing scheduled for Sept. 10. His lawyer filed a motion to quash on Sept. 9, arguing that the breadth of documents requested suggests that the subpoena is a fishing expedition with no clear idea how, if at all, the documents are relevant to the case.

The filing also included an affidavit from Sullivan authenticating his article and stating that it truly and accurately reflects his interview with Wright. In addition to asking that the subpoena be quashed, they are asking for Kleiman to cover Sullivan’s legal fees.

“I can fight this for years if I need to,” Sullivan told the Tracker. “What I really want is just to have my press freedom back.”

On Sept. 20, a judge granted Kleiman’s attorney a 21-day extension to respond to the motion to quash the subpoena against Sullivan. In a joint filling from Wright and Kleiman they state, “The parties have been engaged in extensive settlement negotiations and have reached a non-binding agreement in principle to settle this matter.”

If a settlement is reached, Sullivan told the Tracker, it is likely that the subpoena against him would be dropped.

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