graphic of Free Speech in State Legislatures

Trump lawyers defend release of stolen emails on First Amendment grounds – October 2018

Richmond, VA

Lawyers representing President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign filed a motion to dismiss in Roy Cockrum et al. vs. Donald J Trump for President Inc. The plaintiffs in the case allege that Trump campaign operatives engaged in conspiracy by violating privacy rights and subjecting them to intentional emotional distress by helping publish and disseminate emails stolen during a hack of the Democratic National Committee. Lawyers representing the Trump campaign offered the First Amendment as a defense of the operatives’ actions, arguing that the information contained in the emails, being of national interest, outweighed any privacy claims.

Key Players

Donald J. Trump for President Inc. was the campaign organization created to elect Donald Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Operatives for the campaign allegedly conspired with Wikileaks and Russian hackers to release private emails that had been stolen when the hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s computer network.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the national political organisation for the Democratic party. Workers for the DNC allege that their privacy was violated and they were intentionally subjected to emotional distress when private emails were released on the Wikileaks platform leading up to the 2016 elections.

Wikileaks is an online news source that publishes secret information and leaks provided by anonymous sources. Russian hackers sent emails they had stolen to Wikileaks for publication before the 2016 elections.

Further Details

According to Robert Mueller’s federal investigation, twelve Russian operatives hacked into the DNC computer network in 2016 and stole private emails from its employees. Plaintiffs in this case allege that the subsequent release of the emails violated the privacy of several DNC employees and subjected them to intentional emotional distress. Lawyers representing Trump’s campaign committee, however, argue that campaign workers simply assisted with the dissemination of the stolen information, which they argue is protected by the First Amendment.

In their motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Trump’s lawyers cite the “Bartnicki test” from Bartnicki v. Vopper of 2001, which holds that the First Amendment protects the disclosure of stolen information under two conditions: first, that the disseminator was not involved in the theft of the information, and second, that the information is relevant to “a matter of public concern.” Regarding the plaintiff’s allegations, the motion says, “at a minimum, both violate the First Amendment as applied to the kind of speech at issue here—truthful speech in a campaign.”

Trump’s lawyers argue that they did not assist with stealing the emails, only with their dissemination, according to the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation. And they say the content of the emails was of public interest, so that releasing them was protected by the First Amendment. “The First Amendment ‘has its fullest and most urgent application to speech uttered during the campaign for political office,’” the lawyers argued, quoting from Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Cent. Comm. of 1989. Through the Bartnicki test, the Trump campaign contended that to punish the dissemination of the stolen emails would be a violation of the First Amendment.


A specific court date has not been set for a hearing on the motion in US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The case was previously dismissed by a federal court in Washington, DC, for lack of jurisdiction.

External References

Opening brief in support of defendant Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.’s Motion to Dismiss.

The Trump Campaign says exploiting hacked emails is free speech.

District of Columbia Court decision to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Eastern District of Virginia Court Schedules – Richmond Division.

Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20

Date uploaded to tracker: November 8, 2018