WikiLeaks subpoenaed in defamation lawsuit

March 13, 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.

WikiLeaks

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. Assange was also subpoenaed over the course of the lawsuit, which the Tracker has documented here.

  • Oct. 31, 2019: Aaron Rich motions the court for permission to serve WikiLeaks a subpoena via Twitter, citing his inability to serve subpoenas to either WikiLeaks or Assange through conventional means for more than a year.
  • Jan. 24, 2020: District Judge Richard Leon approves Rich’s request to serve WikiLeaks a subpoena via Twitter.
  • March 13, 2020: Rich serves WikiLeaks the subpoena via Twitter, which orders the outlet to turn over all documents and communications that reference either Seth or Aaron Rich, a tweet from the WikiLeaks account citing its “original and only statement on the murder of US Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich,” and an interview Assange gave to a Dutch television program in which he appeared to insinuate that Seth Rich was the source of the leaked emails, by March 27.

Status of Subpoena

  • With the case closed, any outstanding subpoenas would become moot. WikiLeaks did not respond to the Tracker’s request for comment via Twitter, and it is unclear from the court filings alone whether the outlet complied with the subpoena. 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]

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