Appeals Court Says Prior Restraint Is Perfectly Fine, Refuses To Rehear 3D-Printed Guns Case
It looks as though the Supreme Court may have to step in and settle a particularly thorny question involving the First Amendment, Second Amendment, national security interests, and 3D-printed weapons. Cody Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed, sued the State Department over its demands he cease distributing instructions for the creation of weapons and weapons parts.
The State Department came along too late to make much of a difference. It claimed Wilson’s instructions violated international arms distribution laws, but by the time it noticed what Defense Distributed was doing, the instructions were all over the web. They still are, and no amount of litigation or government orders is going to change that.
What Defense Distributed is doing is perfectly legal in the United States. The State Department says it’s illegal to put these instructions in the hands of foreign enemies. Since it can’t control internet traffic, it’s decided to take down the publisher.
That’s the First Amendment implication, which can’t really be separated from Second Amendment concerns considering the legality of distributing these instructions domestically. Last September, the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court found [PDF] in favor of the government and its national security concerns.
Because both public interests asserted here are strong, we find it most helpful to focus on the balance of harm requirement, which looks to the relative harm to both parties if the injunction is granted or denied. If we affirm the district court’s denial, but Plaintiffs-Appellants eventually prove they are entitled to a permanent injunction, their constitutional rights will have been violated in the meantime, but only temporarily. Plaintiffs-Appellants argue that this result is absurd because the Published Files are already available through third party websites such as the Pirate Bay, but granting the preliminary injunction sought by Plaintiffs-Appellants would allow them to share online not only the Published Files but also any new, previously unpublished files. That leads us to the other side of the balance of harm inquiry.
If we reverse the district court’s denial and instead grant the preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs-Appellants would legally be permitted to post on the internet as many 3D printing and CNC milling files as they wish, including the Ghost Gunner CNC milling files for producing AR-15 lower receivers and additional 3D-printed weapons and weapon parts. Even if Plaintiffs-Appellants eventually fail to obtain a permanent injunction, the files posted in the interim would remain online essentially forever, hosted by foreign websites such as the Pirate Bay and freely available worldwide. That is not a far-fetched hypothetical: the initial Published Files are still available on such sites, and Plaintiffs-Appellants have indicated they will share additional, previously unreleased files as soon as they are permitted to do so. Because those files would never go away, a preliminary injunction would function, in effect, as a permanent injunction as to all files released in the interim. Thus, the national defense and national security interest would be harmed forever. The fact that national security might be permanently harmed while Plaintiffs-Appellants’ constitutional rights might be temporarily harmed strongly supports our conclusion that the district court did not abuse its discretion in weighing the balance in favor of national defense and national security.
A lengthy dissent challenged the First Amendment implications of this decision, which brought prior restraint into play by forbidding Defense Distributed from posting new instructions, along with further distribution of plans it had already released. But the majority didn’t find much it liked in the dissent — at least not when weighing it against the government’s national security interests.
The dissent argues that we “should have held that the domestic internet publication” of the technical data at issue presents no “immediate danger to national security, especially in light of the fact that many of these files are now widely available over the Internet and that the world is awash with small arms.” We note the following:
(1) If Plaintiffs-Appellants’ publication on the Internet were truly domestic, i.e., limited to United States citizens, there is no question that it would be legal. The question presented in this case is whether Plaintiffs-Appellants may place such files on the Internet for unrestricted worldwide download.
(2) This case does not concern only the files that Plaintiffs-Appellants previously made available online. Plaintiffs-Appellants have indicated their intent to make many more files available for download as soon as they are legally allowed to do so. Thus, the bulk of the potential harm has not yet been done but could be if Plaintiffs-Appellants obtain a preliminary injunction that is later determined to have been erroneously granted.
(3) The world may be “awash with small arms,” but it is not yet awash with the ability to make untraceable firearms anywhere with virtually no technical skill. For these reasons and the ones we set out above, we remain convinced that the potential permanent harm to the State Department’s strong national security interest outweighs the potential temporary harm to Plaintiffs-Appellants’ strong First Amendment interest.
The majority also pointed out the government can violate the First Amendment in the interest of national security, and that this court in particular seemed inclined to let it.
Defense Distributed asked for an en banc rehearing. That has been denied [PDF]. This denial gives the dissent the chance to lead off (so to speak), and the first thing it does is point out the obvious First Amendment violations.
The panel opinion’s flawed preliminary injunction analysis permits perhaps the most egregious deprivation of First Amendment rights possible: a content-based prior restraint. […] First, the panel opinion fails to review the likelihood of success on the merits—which ten of our sister circuits agree is an essential inquiry in a First Amendment preliminary injunction case. Second, the panel opinion accepts that a mere assertion of a national security interest is a sufficient justification for a prior restraint on speech. Third, the panel opinion conducts a fundamentally flawed analysis of irreparable harm.
As the dissent points out, the majority chose to deploy prior restraint based on little more than the government’s vague claims of insecurity.
The Government contends that the gun designs at issue could potentially threaten national security. However, this speculation falls far short of the required showing under Bernard and Nebraska Press, showing neither the immediacy of the danger nor the necessity of the prior restraint. Allowing such a paltry assertion of national security interests to justify a grave deprivation of First Amendment rights treats the words “national security” as a magic spell, the mere invocation of which makes free speech instantly disappear.
But this is exactly what the government does: make rights disappear with its “magic spell.” And the courts continue to let it do this. In this case alone, the invocation of “national security” resulted in three consecutive decisions (district court and twice at the appeals court) in favor of prior restraint.
If the Supreme Court decides to review this, there’s little in its track record suggesting it will do otherwise. But there’s zero chance the government will let this go unregulated, even if the Supreme Court grants Defense Distributed a permanent injunction against the State Department. The government needs to have this threat of prosecution to hang over the head of Defense Distributed, as well as others with similar interests.
If this appears to operate in an area existing legislation can’t touch, additional legislation will be introduced to address it. That may result in the government pressing ISPs into service to regulate internet traffic — spying on users to catch them in the act of distributing illegal gun manufacturing plans. We’ll have a Border Patrol but for the internet, maintained by private companies but overseen by the government.
It’s not that there aren’t potentially-serious repercussions from the distribution of 3D-printed gun plans. There’s lots to be concerned about, but the concerns aren’t new ones. Untraceable guns end up in the hands of people who aren’t supposed to have them all the time. Printing one at home isn’t a feasible reality for most people, especially those whose income and expertise are limited, which is most of the world.
Rights aren’t sold separately. They’re a bundle. The multiple opinions in this case have mostly ignored the Second Amendment implications in favor of examining the First. But those should be considered as well. If it’s legal to manufacture these parts in the US, the State Department’s order overreaches. Its concerns about worldwide distribution may be valid, but it’s impossible to prevent this distribution without preventing Americans from doing something their government has told them it’s ok to do.
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