Column: Assange arrest spells trouble for the First Amendment

The founder of WikiLeaks was seized by British authorities, jeopardizing precedents set by the First Amendment.

Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The founder of WikiLeaks was seized by British authorities, jeopardizing precedents set by the First Amendment.

Matt Hersey, columnist

Last Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London and dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy by British officials on charges of failing to surrender to the court and was convicted.

Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, but made international headlines when he leaked a video of a United States military helicopter attack killing multiple civilians in 2010. Since then, thousands of other government documents were leaked by former U.S. intelligence agent Chelsea Manning.

Later that year, the Swedish government charged Assange with sexual assault allegations resulting in an international warrant for his arrest. He turned himself in to British authorities, who upheld his extradition and granted him an unusual second appeal. However, it never occurred.

During the summer of 2012, he was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. His lawyers suspected Sweden’s call for extradition was motivated by cooperation with the U.S. to bring him to court for his interactions with Manning. The U.S. indicted Assange in 2018 for conspiring to commit computer crimes with Manning, who stole documents from the U.S. military and alluded to Assange’s encouragement during her court-martial hearing.

This legal route is problematic, as it is unclear whether or not the U.S. is targeting Assange for leaking classified information or if he genuinely poses a national security threat. His work is much closer to that of a journalist than of a malevolent hacktivist, as he simply publishes undoctored documents thus not actively targeting the country. Assange claims he no longer directly participates in the hacking. Instead, because there is no true hierarchy at WikiLeaks since he runs it alone, Assange essentially fulfills an unconventional version of the role of editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks.

Hypothetically, if the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, leaked illegally acquired documents, he could be indicted. For instance, in 2005, the New York Times published information concerning the phone-tapping of U.S. citizens conducted by the NSA under then-executive editor Bill Keller. The Bush administration threatened legal action against the Times, but upon publication, did not bring any lawsuits forth.

The key difference is that Keller never encouraged illegal activity, unlike Assange, who illegally acquired documents.

Assange’s possible extradition to the United States is concerning because if convicted, his case could set a precedent for incriminating editors and journalists who release documents which serve to inform the general public. The U.S. courts are using his interactions with Manning as a First-Amendment-walkaround.

Consider the Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times in 1971, which detailed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The U.S. attempted to keep the papers secret, but the Supreme Court ruled that publishing the papers was protected under the First Amendment. The Pentagon Papers pressured officials to end a war the public struggled to find an explanation for to begin with.

If the next iteration of the Pentagon Papers were published by Assange, his trial could set a precedent of convicting journalists of treason. The Obama administration avoided bringing forth Assange’s crimes out of concern that the precedent could hinder free speech. Seeing that the Trump administration filed a suit against Assange in March 2018, they do not have the same fear.

Governments around the world may denounce his work, but it is important. These decisions are impactful as both the Pentagon Papers in the 70s and 2018 helicopter attack video influenced the outcome of wars by exposing the discrepancies between government propaganda and politicians’ true intentions. WikiLeaks again proved influential when Assange released stolen emails from the DNC during the 2016 election which boosted then-candidate Trump to the presidency.

If the U.S. intends to preserve freedom of speech and press, Assange cannot be convicted. WikiLeaks may ruffle feathers, but brings radical transparency to Americans without posing any dangers. Our government’s actions to stifle this knowledge — which is protected by the First Amendment — shows that our leaders want us to know less than what we are entitled to.