November 13, 2019

Julian Assange and the First Amendment

“It’s a sad day in America when the most appropriate thing to say is the line often misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” When basic rights are under attack from the government, the arguments that are called for are neither original nor subtle. On Thursday, the Justice Department announced that it was charging the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, for his connection to the leak of some seven hundred and fifty thousand confidential military and diplomatic documents, in 2010. The indictment of Assange is an offensive on the First Amendment that is as banal as it is blunt.

Let’s get the “I disapprove” part out of the way first. Assange is a fundamentally unappealing protagonist. He keeps terrible political company. He is, apparently, terrible company himself. In his writing and interviews, he comes across as power-crazed and manipulative. Most important, when he published leaked classified documents, he shared information that exposed people to danger. He is the perfect target precisely because he is unsympathetic. One has to hold one’s nose while defending Assange—and yet one must defend Assange.

The use of the Espionage Act to prosecute Assange is an attack on the First Amendment. Carrie DeCell, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute, summed up the threat in a Twitter thread on Thursday. “The government argues that Assange violated the Espionage Act by soliciting, obtaining, and then publishing classified information,” she wrote. “That’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do every day.””

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