Prosecuting Julian Assange Poses a Grave Threat to Freedom of the Press

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Washington, DC – -( “Publishing is not a crime,” the editors and publishers of The New York Times and four leading European news outlets say in an open letter released on Monday.

While that statement might seem uncontroversial, the U.S. Department of Justice disagrees, as evidenced by its prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for obtaining and disseminating classified material.

In urging the Justice Department to drop that case, the Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais implicitly acknowledge that freedom of the press is meaningless when the government decides who is allowed to exercise it. Although that point also might seem obvious, journalists who take a dim view of Assange have long argued that attempting to imprison him for divulging government secrets poses no threat to their work because he does not qualify as a member of their profession.

That position is profoundly ahistorical. As scholars such as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh have shown, the “freedom … of the press” guaranteed by the First Amendment protects your right to communicate with the public through the printed word and other tools of mass communication, regardless of whether you do that for a living or work for a mainstream news organization.

The Assange exception to the First Amendment is also dangerously shortsighted. As the Times et al. emphasize, the conduct at the center of the case against him is indistinguishable from what professional journalists do every day when they reveal information that the government wants to conceal.

Twelve years ago, those newspapers published a series of startling stories based on confidential State Department cables and military files that Assange had obtained from former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Those documents, the open letter notes, “disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale.”

As the Times put it at the time, the records told “the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money.” The revelations, Times reporter Charlie Savage notes, included “dossiers about Guantanamo Bay detainees being held without trial” and “logs of significant events in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars” that showed “civilian casualties were higher than official estimates.”

All but one of the 17 counts in the latest federal indictment of Assange relate to obtaining or disclosing such “national defense information,” a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917. Once the U.S. has completed his extradition from the U.K., Assange will face a maximum sentence of 160 years on those counts alone.

Journalists who reported the information that Assange obtained are guilty of the same crimes, a daunting fact that poses an obvious threat to freedom of the press.

Largely for that reason, no publisher of previously secret government information has ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act until now, and the Obama administration, which hardly looked kindly on Assange, declined to establish that chilling precedent.

The Trump administration took a different view. John Demers, then head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, assured reporters there was no cause for alarm because Assange is “no journalist,” and it “has never been the Department’s policy to target” officially recognized journalists “for their reporting.”

The Times et al. are not blind to Assange’s deviations from journalistic norms, which included his alleged involvement in Manning’s unauthorized use of government computers and his publication of unredacted documents that may have endangered intelligence sources. But they recognize that the Justice Department’s position means prosecutorial discretion is the only thing that protects “real” journalists, however that category is defined, from a similar fate.

So do Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who this past summer introduced a bill that would amend the Espionage Act to protect journalists and whistleblowers.

“The ongoing attempts to prosecute journalists like Julian Assange under the Espionage Act,” Massie said, “should be opposed by all who wish to safeguard our constitutional rights.”

About Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum. During two decades in journalism, he has relentlessly skewered authoritarians of the left and the right, making the case for shrinking the realm of politics and expanding the realm of individual choice. Jacobs’ work appears here at AmmoLand News through a license with Creators Syndicate.

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Sure! Trade Manning in for the release of high level terrorists, then py for Manning to be changed into a woman and put him on the stage of fame and fortune in Bizarro World and tear-up Assange for DOING WHAT WAS RIGHT FOR THE WORLD! No wonder our country is so F’d up! The Conservative base has gone full blown pussy!


At least he didn’t give up $80 billion worth of armament to the Taliban


He should be tried for aiding and abetting terrorists. I think it was done purposefully to make sure they have a fresh batch of bad guys to have to lock us down for.


I can’t argue about males being full on pussies. I can say with certainty that it is our fault for allowing this to happen. I see the results daily. For the past 30 years at least, the public schools have had an all out war on boys. They’ve invented maladies in order to drug the little boys into zombies that are supposed to sit in their places with bright shiny faces. Ever heard the term toxic masculinity? Absurdity at its best. Recently, I was listening to a radio show about the drug vagrants taking over Sound Transit Commuter Train cars… Read more »


What was the New York Times charged with when they published the Pentagon Papers in 1971? If Assange is guilty of publishing government classified, then why did Bradley Manning who stole classified get a sentence of 35 years and only serve 4 years? Assange didn’t steal anything.


Your comment reflects my thoughts on the matter. I’d like to know the difference between what Assange did and the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Like @Rob J said, the first amendment has no requirement for ‘official press credentials.’


It has always bothered me that some, perhaps most news professionals, see themselbes as the only ones to whom the 1st Amendment recitation of freesom of the press applies. WRONG! I have never seen it alleged that Assange was to blame for the acquisition by Manning of classified information. The Biden administration is scapegoating Assange. But that’s typical of this DOJ.


Agreed, Assange is being prosecuted to send a message to all journalists. Even those who turn their noses up at him and say he’s no journalist will think twice before publishing if he’s convicted, and that’s a win for the government.


What can you expect from a criminal government that shits all over the Constitution and international law? What can you expect when the USA has become the major exporter of TERRORISM the world wide? What can you expect when they prosecute their own citizens like Stuart Rhodes for bullshit “crimes” that are lies and fabrications just to get the guy off the street so that his influence is stopped? WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT when most Americans are so brain dead that reading statements like this get their blood boiling because they think that they are “patriots” and yet adhere to… Read more »


Articles like this have a way of flushing out the statists.


Assange is not facing charges of “publishing” anything. Assange is facing charges of conspiring with Bradley Manning to obtain secret information. If Manning had simply delivered the information, and Assange published it, there would be no charge. But Assange is alleged to have been actually involved in the plot to steal the info. That will have to be proved, of course, but that is his alleged crime, not the publishing of the information. At least that is how I understand it.


You understand wrong. His exposure of the helicopter attack in Iraq is what got this all going.


I don’t see the problem. This dirt bag can publish whatever and whenever he wants; first amendment guarantee. What everyone seems to miss is that if, by publishing classified documents, he runs afoul of 18 U.S. Code § 798 – Disclosure of classified information, and is liable for a fine and up to ten years sharing a cell with Bubba. He knew this and thought he was bulletproof. Personally, I’d like to see him roasted on a spit over an open fire.


Typical boot licking low life supporter of psychopathic control freaks. YOU SHOULD BE PROUD.

Truth Jurist

I see no compelling evidence for why the DOJ should discontinue its efforts to pursue and prosecute Julian Assange for obtaining and disseminating classified material. Classified info means just that, classified information. If you leak it, pass it on, etc, regardless of whether you are a US citizen or not, member of the press or not, and whether you swore an oath to our constitution or not, the law has allegedly been broken and thus investigation, prosecution, and decision by trial needs to proceed. The realities of national defense, war, its conduct and national security are only noble in patriot… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Truth Jurist

So exposing the murder of journalists with an attack helicopter is classified material? Showing that the US is the biggest terrorist organization in the world is classified material? Gag me with a place setting.


The name Truth Jurist reminded me of another top secret leaker –

” Reality Winner” !

Matt in Oklahoma

What a crock of crap. Assange doesn’t have anything to do with the press and no one is in danger. You give up national secrets you get executed as a traitor. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should either.
You published this and no one came after you did they?

Rob J

“Assange doesn’t have anything to do with the press” is the kicker point.

There are no laws requiring “Press” credentials or recognition. Independent journalism encompasses any dissemination of information, no matter what the occupation of the presenter may be. You and I both, by posting here in a public forum fall under the first ammendment rights of freedom of the press no matter our occupation.


Assange is not a US citizen, hence treason is off the table. Thomas Paine, Hamilton, Jay and Adams, Madison and Jefferson, none of these worked for corporate media. Think on that.


Yea, they seem to overlook those tiny details. After all the 1st amendment doesn’t say you’re only protected if you work for MSLSD or the Communist News Network “CNN”.


What about all the purposeful leaks bureaucrats routinely give the press to incite anger towards conservatives? How many of them have been executed or even arrested?