The Prosecution of Julian Assange Endangers Press Freedom

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange has been indicted on 18 charges totaling a potential 175 years in prison for publishing the truth, including the 2010-11 publication of Iraq & Afghanistan War Logs, State Department cables, and Guantanamo Bay Detainee Assessment Briefs.

Screenshot from “Collateral Murder” a classified video by the US military depicting the murder of dozens of civilians including two journalists

With one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion and 17 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917, Assange is charged with seeking to obtain, obtaining, receiving, and publishing documents that exposed war crimes, 15,000 previously uncounted civilian casualties, rampant corruption, and the previously unseen nature of modern warfare.

This is a landmark test of the First Amendment right to publish, as a conviction would be the first ever for the publication of truthful information in the public interest.

Press freedom groups and First Amendment experts agree

Press freedom groups and First Amendment experts such as the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch agree that the prosecution threatens to criminalize basic journalistic activity. As a coalition of these groups wrote to the Biden Administration in February 2021,

“The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.”

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Additionally, Assange is an Australian citizen who was working in Europe at the time of these publications, so the United States government is claiming global jurisdiction over what is published about its activity. This would set a precedent not only for the First Amendment in the
United States but also for international standards in investigative journalism; this case should be expected to be used as a precedent-setting blueprint if China, Russia, or any other foreign government wanted to prosecute an American journalist for reporting about their activity.

Journalists and publishers know what’s at stake for press freedom

Julian Assange’s Indictment Aims at the Heart of the First Amendment | New York Times Editorial Board

The new charges focus on receiving and publishing classified material from a government source. That is something journalists do all the time. They did it with the Pentagon Papers and in countless other cases where the public benefited from learning what was going on behind closed doors, even though the sources may have acted illegally. This is what the First Amendment is designed to protect: the ability of publishers to provide the public with the truth.

New York Times

The Guardian view on Julian Assange: do not extradite him | The Guardian

“The US should never have brought the case against the WikiLeaks founder. This attack on press freedom must be rejected.”

The Guardian

Press freedom coalition calls on Biden’s Justice Dept. to drop the Assange prosecution | Freedom of the Press Foundation

Two dozen rights groups, including ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Knight First Amendment Institute, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders

Freedom of the Press Foundation

The Assange Indictment Seeks to Punish Pure Publication | Lawfare

Counts 15 through 17 of the superseding Assange indictment represent the first time a grand jury has issued an indictment based on a pure publication theory. This goes beyond just a threat to sources or newsgathering; it’s a direct threat to news reporting.


Special Analysis of the May 2019 Superseding Indictment of Julian Assange | Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Does it matter if Julian Assange is a journalist? No. The First Amendment covers everyone. If, for instance, a private citizen had received the Pentagon Papers, recognized their newsworthiness, and published them in a small-town newsletter, the epic 1971 Supreme Court ruling rejecting the government’s injunction should not have turned out differently. The First Amendment also covers non-citizens such as Assange.

Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press

Take Action to Defend Press Freedom

President Biden has a chance to mend the divide that has escalated into full hostility between the U.S. government and the foundations of our democracy — free speech and a free press.

Donald Trump’s indictment of Julian Assange was an attack on our democratic ideals. Now that the UK High Court has refused to release Assange, it falls on Biden and Attorney General Garland to do the right thing.

It is time to uphold our democratic ideals and demand that our government respects the rights of free speech, free publication, and transparency.

TAKE ACTION: Sign here to urge President Bident to defend press freedom.