This prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act would be a clear danger to press freedoms — the government could subsequently use the Assange case as a precedent to go after whistleblowers acting in the public interest by them disclosing classified material about corruption that should be known to the public. Assange has done some things that are quite wrong in my view — it’s another matter to debate what things those are — but he has also done some good things and regardless of his character, it’d be harmful to prosecute him in the way the U.S. government is now trying to do so.
Assange was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday. The charges are seen by many proponents of press freedom on both the right and the left as part of an effort from the White House to criminalize dissent by journalism and to produce a chilling effect on reporters exposing classified documents that the government would prefer remain hidden.
Despite the unpopularity of the Trump administration among Democrats, however, at press time only three members of the party’s congressional delegation has spoken up: Wyden, of Oregon; Warren, of Massachusetts; and Independent Sanders of Vermont.
In a statement, Wyden said that he was “extremely concerned about the precedent this may set and potential dangers to the work of journalists and the First Amendment.”
“This is not about Julian Assange,” said Wyden. “This is about the use of the Espionage Act to charge a recipient and publisher of classified information.”
“Let me be clear: it is a disturbing attack on the First Amendment for the Trump administration to decide who is or is not a reporter for the purposes of a criminal prosecution,” Sanders said in a tweet Friday. “Donald Trump must obey the Constitution, which protects the publication of news about our government.”
Critics of Assange have claimed that the Wikileaks founder is not a journalist, so his “crimes” are not applicable to journalists and journalism as a whole. But, as Knight First Amendment Institute staff attorney Carrie DeCell pointed out in a twitter thread, that’s not the case.
“The government argues that Assange violated the Espionage Act by soliciting, obtaining, and then publishing classified information,” DeCell tweeted. “That’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do every day.”
In a column at The Intercept, journalist James Risen put the indictment into context.
“If the government gets to decide what constitutes journalism,” Risen wrote, “what’s to stop it from making similar rulings about any outlet whose coverage it doesn’t like?”
The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel made the stakes clear in a tweet.
“Espionage charges against Assange are a threat to press freedom,” said vanden Heuvel.
Assange also got support from The Washington Post‘s executive editor, Marty Baron. In a statement, Baron said that the Trump administration was making a jump from hostility to the press to criminalizing journalism.
“With this new indictment of Julian Assange,” said Baron, “the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy.”
Baron was joined in his denunciation of the indictment by the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet said in a statement the government was threatening a “basic tenet of press freedom.”
“Obtaining and publishing information that the government would prefer to keep secret is vital to journalism and democracy,” said Baquet. “The new indictment is a deeply troubling step toward giving the government greater control over what Americans are allowed to know.”