First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams says: “WikiLeaks may just be the price we pay for freedom of the press in this country.”
Why not: “WikiLeaks demonstrates the value of the First Amendment”?
After all, what’s the good of having a free press when journalists so willingly serve the interests of the establishment? If the Fourth Estate had not turned itself into a fourth branch of government, WikiLeaks would have little reason to exist — or at least, little reason to be challenging the authority of the US government.
Freedoms not exercised will easily be taken away.
Thanks to nearly a century of cases dealing with the clash between national security and the freedom of the press, the Constitution provides enormous protection for publishers of state secrets. Those who leak the secrets in the first place — government officials, even soldiers, for instance — can and are prosecuted, such as Army private, Bradley Manning, now sitting in a military prison after having been charged with illegally downloading secret files amid suspicions that he gave them to WikiLeaks.
Putting someone like Assange in jail for publishing documents he did not himself steal, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thing that First Amendment makes difficult. “From everything we’ve seen, [Manning] was merely responding to the notion that Assange might publish the cables,” former CIA inspector general Frederick P. Hitz told TIME. “There’s nothing to show that Assange played an active role in obtaining the information.” He conceded that the leaks had been tremendously damaging, but added “I don’t see any easy effort there” in pursuing charges.
Holder has said the government will explore whether Assange could be charged with a form of theft since the records had been stolen, though such a course is fraught will obstacles, given that the files are digital copies of government records. Holder said too the government will consider whether Assange might be guilty of conspiring somehow with Manning, or went beyond the traditional role of publisher by acting as a kind of broker in dissemenating the files to newspapers around the world. What worries famed First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams is that if the government stretches to get around the Constitution to charge Assange, it may end up damaging the press freedoms enjoyed by every publisher. Nobody should applaud Assange, Abrams told TIME, but trying to remedy the harm he caused could easily leave the country worse off. “WikiLeaks may just be the price we pay for freedom of the press in this country,” Abrams said.
The New York Times reports on the administration’s ongoing effort to find a legal trap in which they might snare Assange:
Justice Department officials have … examined whether Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks could be charged with trafficking in stolen government property.
But scholars say there might be legal difficulties with that approach, too, because the leaked documents are reproductions of files the government still possesses, not physical objects missing from its file cabinets. That means they are covered by intellectual property law, not ordinary property law.
“This is less about stealing than it is about copying,” said John G. Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in Internet issues and intellectual property.
Intellectual property law criminalizes the unauthorized reproduction of certain kinds of commercial information, like trade secrets or copyrighted music, films and software files. But those categories do not appear to cover government documents, which by law cannot be copyrighted and for which there is no ordinary commercial market.
Mr. Assange has received leaks of private-sector information as well. He has indicated, for example, that his next step might be to publish a copy of the contents of a hard drive belonging to an executive at a bank — apparently, Bank of America.
If he does so, some of the problems associated with trying to find a way to prosecute him for distributing leaked government documents could disappear. The works of a person in the private sector are automatically copyrighted, and bank documents could be deemed trade secrets.
“If you had large-scale dissemination of a private-sector company’s records, there might be some kind of argument there similar to commercial espionage,” said James Boyle, a Duke University law professor who specializes in intellectual property and public-domain issues.
There would still be obstacles. For example, Mr. Assange could claim that his distribution of the files was allowable under the “fair use” exception to copyright law and that it was not for financial gain. Still, “fair use” does not allow wholesale reproduction, and prosecutors could argue that his organization was raising money from its activities.
Even so, Mr. Boyle cautioned, intellectual property law is not well designed to prosecute what WikiLeaks is doing.
“The reason people are upset about this is not about commercial theft or misusing the fabulous original expressions of U.S. diplomats,” Mr. Boyle said. “I think it is the wrong tool. You go after Al Capone for tax evasion rather than bootlegging — fine. But this is a bridge too far.”