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Rep. Thomas Massie: State Department is Threatening First Amendment Rights on the Internet

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Created: 21 December, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
3 min read

A small group within the U.S. House has filed an amicus brief in a court case that may affect what can be posted and distributed on the web.

Led by Kentucky U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, 15 House members filed on behalf of Defense Distributed, a gun rights advocacy group. In 2013, the U.S. State Department, under the auspices of the International Traffic Arms Regulation (ITAR), ordered Defense Distributed to remove its instructions for creating a one-shot pistol with a 3-D printer from its website. In May of this year, Cody Wilson, the creator of the pistol, filed suit against the government, charging that his First Amendment right to post online was violated.

The pistol, called the Liberator, was entirely made of plastic except for a hardware store nail used as a firing pin. The Liberator was downloaded more than 100,000 times in the days following its upload and videos of his successful firing.

Wilson said the purpose of his creation was so anyone with access to the Internet and a 3-D printer could construct his weapon:

"You can print a lethal device. It's kind of scary, but that's what we're aiming to show. . . . Anywhere there's a computer and an internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun."

In the government's view, posting the plans for creating a plastic gun for free online violates U.S. law forbidding the international export of unapproved arms. The government's claim is that Wilson and Defense Distributed "potentially violated" arms control law because someone on the internet may view it. According to Wired.com, the government assumes a person accessing the site is the same "as if it had shipped a crate of AR-15s to, say, Mexico."

In his press release, Massie explained the stakes of Wilson's lawsuit:

"We expect the Court to recognize that the State Department exceeded the authority granted to it by Congress and violated the First, Second, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution . . . If the State Department's violations are allowed to stand, it could have dramatic implications for free speech on the Internet."

In his brief, Massie wrote that the government is abusing language to make its case against Defense Distributed:

"[The State Department's order to DD] captures purely domestic discussions between Americans in America simply because those discussions were undertaken by means of the internet rather than on paper, or orally, or by any other method. To interpret 'export' to mean 'publish on the internet to the general public' simply does not comport with the common meaning of the word."

Wilson, a self-described libertarian who has been often called an agent provocateur and attention seeker, represents the debate about what speech means in the Internet age. Can any user post anything he or she wants on the web, even if it is instructions for an unregistered gun? Can speech on the Internet, which is neither directly nor indirectly inciting violence, be legally curbed by the government?

The addition of Thomas Massie and the other members of Congress to his case adds prestige to the cause of Defense Distributed. In an already highly-charged political environment on gun rights, the issue of Wilson's 3-D printed gun is unlikely to fade away. Technology continually evolves, but the debate on the immutability of rights, such as free speech, also persists.

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