Civil Liberties

Bringing the First Amendment into the 21st Century

Trevor Timm and the Freedom of the Press Foundation empower journalists in a changing world.


Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit that works to provide funding, encryption tools, and other resources to journalists who expose government secrets. Timm's group is backed by heavy hitters-journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, actor John Cusack, and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Timm sat down with Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller in March to discuss the vision for the project, how it plans to operate, and what happens if the foundation becomes a target. To watch a video version of this interview, go here or view it below.

Q: What are the overarching goals of the Freedom of the Press Foundation?

A: This first got started about a year and a half ago. The original inspiration for it was actually the Wikileaks financial blockade. Back in 2010 when Wikileaks started publishing all this classified information-State Department cables and war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq-the payment processors, Visa and MasterCard and PayPal, all cut them off, even though they were fully protected by the First Amendment and they were doing exactly what other media organizations do all the time.

We thought this was an injustice-an end run around the First Amendment, where government officials were able to pressure private companies to financially strangle [Wikileaks] into censoring themselves. Getting this big group of people together, we really wanted to make this a much broader mission about First Amendment principles and bringing the First Amendment into the 21st century.

We transcribed the Chelsea Manning trial for the media to use after the government wouldn't release their own transcripts. Now we're actually going around and installing SecureDrop, which is an open source whistleblower submission system that can better help news organizations use technology to get documents from whistleblowers.

Q: What are the big changes that need to be made?

A: Again, look at the Wikileaks example where they were cut off from payment processors, where they were kind of looked at as this digital upstart. They were treated differently [than established media organizations] even though they were essentially doing the same thing.

The same can be said about sources and whistleblowers who have been prosecuted at a record rate under the Obama administration. The government has figured out that they don't need to get reporters to testify against their sources anymore. They can just go to email providers and phone providers and subpoena all of their contacts.

Q: What's your solution to get around the payment problem going forward?

A: On our website you can donate to a variety of different organizations, all with one click. The donation will show up on your credit card as Freedom of the Press Foundation. But then we take the bundle of money for each organization and send it off to them at different intervals.

Q: That seems like that puts a target on you guys. How are you protecting yourselves?

A: We have very good legal counsel in [the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)]. The good thing about this is that it's perfectly legal. Having a big platform with a bunch of great people with loud voices hopefully would raise hell if we were ever cut off ourselves.

Q: Before you started this venture, you worked at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has really been at the forefront of a lot of these privacy issues.

A: EFF has been suing NSA for years over surveillance that was exposed in 2005 and 2006. It was hard for us to get the public to pay attention. It's really been extraordinary seeing the sea change in public opinion since Edward Snowden.