Today the First Amendment Coalition joined a group of press-freedom and civil-liberties groups demanding that the Biden Administration drop criminal charges against Julian Assange under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
FAC’s supporters may wonder why our organization, which is adamantly nonpartisan and promotes press freedoms, is taking a position in support of a non-journalist whose work has done much to aggravate partisan rancor.
The reason is simple: Like it or not, Assange and Wikileaks are publishers. By charging a publisher with violating the Espionage Act, the Trump Administration opened a door that no previous White House was willing to open. The law prohibits the disclosure of government secrets and to date has been used to prosecute people who leak such secrets to the press. But is vaguely worded enough to potentially allow for severe criminal punishment for bringing those secrets to the world — which is what journalists do every day.
If Assange can be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing government secrets, the government likely will not stop with him. This is a very dangerous road to go down and could have an enormous chilling effect on investigative journalism broadly, and national-security reporting specifically.
Media outlets generally have been slow to support Assange — he is viewed as an agitator, not a “real journalist.” This approach is as wrongheaded as it is dangerous. We must speak out now. The Biden administration should drop these charges.
Read the coalition’s letter, spearheaded by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and related coverage in the New York Times, “Civil-Liberties Groups Ask Biden Justice Dept. to Drop Julian Assange Charges.“
David Snyder is the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free speech, a free press and a more open and accountable government.
The Justice Department could also file a new, superseding indictment charging Assange for actions that are distinguishable from the practice of investigative journalism. Examples: Limiting Espionage Act charges to the portion of the Espionage Act requiring proof of an intent to cause injury to the national security; charging for disclosure of classified information only as to those instances, described in the current indictment, where Assange allegedly knew he was risking harm to persons who had supplied the information to the government.
The point is that de facto immunity for Assange isn’t the only alternative for the Biden administration to consider. It can recharge Assange in ways that would not, in my view, jeopardize legitimate investigative journalism in the national security area.
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