The US Charging Julian Assange Could Put Press Freedom on Trial
Julian Assange has made himself a difficult figure to love. The organization he created, WikiLeaks, has spilled secrets that infuriate the right and, more recently, the left side of the political aisle. He burns all bridges, alienates friends, and sees enemies everywhere. Mounting evidence suggests he even allowed his organization to serve as a leak-laundering service for Kremlin hackers seeking to swing a US election.
But if the US Department of Justice prosecutes Assange, as it reportedly may soon, he could become something else: the first journalist in modern history to be criminally charged by American courts for publishing classified information. WikiLeaks may not look like a traditional journalism outlet, but it shares the same ends—publishing true information from its sources. And that means legal action against Assange could threaten the freedom of the press as a whole.
“Any prosecution would be incredibly dangerous for the First Amendment and pretty much every reporter in the United States,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “You can hate WikiLeaks all you want, but if they’re prosecuted, that precedent can be turned around and used on all the reporters you do like.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post and CNN separately reported that the Department of Justice is considering charges against Assange or other “members” of the small, secret-spilling group that constitutes WikiLeaks. Those charges would reportedly stem not only from WikiLeaks’ recent publications of classified CIA materials that include highly secret hacking tools and techniques, but also the seven-year-old publication of 250,000 State Department communications, known as Cablegate, that WikiLeaks received from now-pardoned Army private Chelsea Manning. In remarks just last week, CIA director Mike Pompeo decried WikiLeaks as a “non-state, hostile intelligence agency.”
But as controversial as its publications have been, WikiLeaks and its defenders have argued they were also the work of journalists—albeit ones with a radical adherence to principles of transparency, and new tools for soliciting material from sensitive sources. That journalistic work, in theory, qualifies for protection under the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.
For decades, the US Justice Department has restrained itself from testing that protection. Instead, it has limited its prosecutions to the press’s sources, charging many—including Manning—as spies under the Espionage Act.
If the Trump administration prosecutes Assange and WikiLeaks under that same hundred-year-old law, it could represent a new and serious crack in the government’s de facto policy of respecting reporters’ First Amendment protections.
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