The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

A modest proposal for countering Russian election interference

Jonathan Swift meets Vladimir Putin


What can we do to counter Russian "hack and dox" interference with US election campaigns and candidates?  A lot more than we think, as long as we're willing to open the first amendment Overton window.  I posted my modest proposal on the topic over at Lawfare.  Here's the gist:

Of course, stopping the dissemination of such information raises real First Amendment questions, but the Supreme Court's pronouncements on this topic have been surprisingly qualified and leave plenty of room for legislation that would drain much of the fun out of Russian cyber-kompromat. In the leading case, Bartnicki v. Vopper, the court refused to enforce a statutory prohibition on disseminating the contents of illegally wiretapped conversations. The conversation in question was a cell phone call in which a member of a teachers' union said to the union's negotiator that if the school district didn't improve its offer to end a strike, "we're gonna have to go to their, their homes … to blow off their front porches, we'll have to do some work on some of those guys." The Supreme Court's opinion considered two principal justifications for a ban on dissemination of tapped conversations—deterring wiretapping and preserving privacy. The court dismissed the first because it thought deterrence could be achieved by prosecuting those who conducted the illegal tap. It was troubled by the second, recognizing that failing to punish the disclosure of private conversations was itself likely to restrain private speech. Nonetheless, in an expressly narrow decision, the court concluded that the conversation being disclosed was a matter of public concern, so that prohibiting dissemination would trench too far on freedom of speech. Two justices who were necessary to the majority wrote separately, narrowing the decision further by declaring that only a communication threatening physical harm or the like was of sufficient public concern to justify overriding the dissemination ban.

To my mind, this decision leaves plenty of room for imposing restraints on the distribution of private emails stolen by a foreign government. The government's interest in protecting private speech remains strong in the case of foreign government hacking, and it is bolstered by a deep national security concern that was quite lacking in Bartnicki. What's more, the Bartnicki court's notion that such thefts can be deterred by criminal prosecution is demonstrably wrong where government hackers are concerned. We've indicted Russian, Chinese and Iranian government hackers; it hasn't deterred any of them for long. Even taken at face value, the decision protects only dissemination that addresses a matter of public concern. That by itself would seem to allow Congress to restrict massive dumps of private communications that do not touch on significant public issues, let alone make threats of violence.