If no good deed goes unpunished, then what is to be done with Julian Assange? It’s nearly impossible to find anyone who’s opinion about the Australian hasn’t been flipped on its head, at least once, over the past decade that has borne witness to WikiLeaks releasing video showing U.S. military attacks on Iraqi civilians, the publishing of embarrassing Democratic party emails during the 2016 presidential election, and a visibly shaken Assange being removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London after receiving asylum for seven years to avoid legal entanglements. Say what you want about him, but you probably said the opposite not too long ago.
While there is a lot noise generated about his divisive nature and whether he is a transparency hero or a Russian asset, there should be no confusion that the motivation to extradite Assange to the U.S. is a dangerous and an unprecedented attack on the First Amendment.
Assange has been imprisoned in London since April 2019 for publishing classified documents that exposed civilian deaths and other secrets about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provided to Wikileaks by former Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning (Manning is being unjustly imprisoned for her refusal to cooperate with the Wikileaks’ grand jury investigation). Over the next few weeks, Assange will appear in extradition hearings to determine if he will be sent to the U.S. to face 18 criminal counts including violating the Espionage Act and conspiring to hack government computers. He faces 175 years in prison if convicted.
Whether you think he’s likeable or not, Assange has become part of the American legacy of whistleblowers and truth-tellers that expose criminal conduct that would have otherwise remained from public view. Just like the confidential papers about the Vietnam War that Daniel Ellsberg leaked in 1971, the information published by WikiLeaks, including the classified military documents, contributed to revelations that are in the public interest and confirmed what other journalists had already covered. In both instances, the public was better served by the freeing of that information than keeping it secret.
Assange is charged under the Espionage Act for publishing truthful information. The indictment is seen as an assault on those people and organizations that publish classified information in the public interest. A successful prosecution could lead to further retaliation against publishers, reporters and their confidential sources, jeopardizing our national security by silencing the people who know about public and private misconduct but fear retribution. And if Assange were convicted under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law intended to punish spies, it would be the first time it will have been used against a media outlet. This would be setting a dangerous precedent.
Assange’s actions should be protected by First Amendment’s protections of freedom of the press. As society and technology change, journalism is no longer limited to legacy news outlets that collect, write and publish articles in newspapers or report on television. In many ways, investigative journalism is becoming more transparent and accessible with the internet and social media, meaning there are more people and processes by which information enters the public sphere. While some find him unconventional as a public figure, Assange’s actions as a publisher are not different from traditional media outlets.
Free press advocates and human rights experts are calling for the U.S. to withdraw its extradition request for Assange. It’s pretty telling that even one of Wikileaks’ targets, Quentin Lafay, the French president’s speechwriter whose personal information was made public by Wikileaks, recognizes the massive stakes in the case and has expressed support for Assange.
Some people reading this might not find Assange to be a likeable fellow; others will consider him a hero of free press and transparency. But constitutional protections don’t turn on the popularity of the individual. And this case is more about protecting the people who risk their careers and freedom to alert the public about military misconduct, animal cruelty or taxpayer waste than the actions of one man.