Donors to an online crowdfunding account for the benefit of jailed journalist Barrett Brown are suing the federal government.
The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco on Tuesday, claims the federal government violated donors’ First Amendment rights when it subpoenaed WePay Inc., the website that hosted the “Free Barrett Brown” fundraiser for “any and all information” related to the fund.
“The First Amendment clearly says that we can freely associate and give to causes that we support without fear of reprisal,” said Kevin Gallagher, the man who established the “Free Barrett Brown” fund and the only named plaintiff in the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the subpoenaed information was handed over to the FBI for use in the government’s case against Brown.
Brown made headlines in 2012 when he was arrested for sharing a link that contained information tied to the infamous Stratfor hack. In late 2011, Anonymous hacked into the private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting, also known as Stratfor. The hack exposed a trove of millions of emails, many of which contained credit card numbers and other sensitive information.
At the time, Brown was a journalist whose work focused on the U.S. government and its relationship with private intelligence contractors. Shortly after the Strafor hack, Brown shared a link to a file that contained some of the credit card information leaked in the Strafor attack in a chat room. He was arrested shortly thereafter.
News of Brown’s arrest sparked outrage among advocates for free speech and free press, and prompted Gallagher to take action. He established the “Free Barrett Brown” crowdsourcing campaign in an effort to raise funds for Brown’s legal defense. At one point Brown faced the possibility of serving a 100-year sentence.
Brown was eventually sentenced to five years in federal prison in 2015.
The lawsuit alleges the information that the government sought from WePay was irrelevant to its case against Brown and would instead be used to "identify and surveil Mr. Brown’s financial supporters.”
Gallagher says he became aware of the subpoena in 2015 when he obtained emails that showed the government had obtained sensitive information about the “Free Barrett Brown” fundraising account.
He says by the time he found out about the subpoena, it was a year or two after the government had issued it.
Gallagher says the government should have notified him or the other donors before issuing the subpoena.
NBC Bay Area reached out to the Department of Justice for comment but has not heard back.
Gallagher told NBC Bay Area that his work as an activist has taught him to always safeguard sensitive information. He says he’s curious to find out just how much the government collected about him and the other donors.
“I’m no stranger to the idea that I might be a target and that I have to use stuff like encryption and do whatever I can to protect my privacy and security,” he said.