Let’s quickly review the relevant rules.
As most Americans know, the First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of the press. That freedom is not absolute: you cannot falsely cry fire in a crowded theater, nor blithely libel someone you don’t like, nor spill trade secrets in contravention of an agreement not to do so. Members of the press who report damaging, untrue information about public figures with “willful disregard” for its accuracy can be held accountable.
In most cases, the persons harmed by such improper behaviors can sue only after the fact. Our legal system has a strong bias against prior restraint–against enjoining publication in the first place. (That bias goes back to the era when England required publishers to obtain government permission before printing anything.) But even that strong presumption against prior restraint can be overcome in extraordinary circumstances–someone proposing to identify American spies abroad, or to disclose upcoming troop movements in wartime could certainly be kept from doing so.
It is probably impossible to overstate the importance of journalism to democracy–as one masthead puts it, democracy dies in darkness. Autocrats routinely take control of the media. That’s why Trump’s constant attacks on the press are so worrisome–and so unAmerican. Those attacks are probably one reason that the arrest of Julian Assange has raised such an outcry.
How does this apply to what we know thus far about Wikileaks and Julian Assange?
Assange’s Wikileaks published illegally procured classified information. Under First Amendment law as I understand it, his publication of that information is protected.
Engaging in criminal activity to acquire the information, however, is not. And that is what the government–so far–is alleging.
Typically, a whistleblower or other source of illegally obtained material is the one breaking the law; a journalist is not a lawbreaker simply because he or she received it. Here, it is alleged that Assange materially assisted Chelsea Manning in the hacking through which they acquired the information. If the government has persuasive evidence that Assange played an active role in the hacking, his conviction for that behavior would not implicate press freedom.
If there is no probative evidence that Assange broke the law in obtaining the information, or if the government expands its charges to include publication, analysis of the situation changes. Journalists who have expressed First Amendment concerns are also worried about a “slippery slope”–especially since Assange is such an easily detested and unsympathetic figure, his case could conceivably set an unfortunate precedent. So long as the government prosecutes him only for illegal hacking, however, I think the First Amendment is safe.
This episode comes at a time when the First Amendment is under pressure from the craziness on the Internet, from conspiracy theories promulgated by provocateurs like Alex Jones, and from propaganda mills like Fox News. It’s really tempting to argue that some speech, some “news,” falls within the category of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. Efforts to ensure that news sources are truthful and fair, however, present us with the same dilemma that faced the nation’s Founders: who gets to decide?
Is freedom of expression dangerous? Yes. The First Amendment enables hate radio, protects propaganda and the spread of deliberate misinformation, and makes it difficult for even conscientious citizens to separate truth from fiction. But the Founders concluded that the alternative– giving government the authority to decide what information we see– would be even more dangerous.
Unless some genius can devise a way to keep information honest without empowering government censorship, slimy characters like Julian Assange will cynically market their activities as First Amendment expression. Chalk it up to the cost of protecting liberty.