Julian Assange

If President Trump's War on the Press Starts with WikiLeaks, Who Will Rise to Assange's Defense?

Look down and take note of the very obvious slippery slope.


Javier Lizon/EPA/Newscom

If a vague, politically malleable concept of "hate speech" is all it takes for some Americans to surrender their First Amendment rights to speak out, will the possibility of the prosecution of WikiLeaks be all it takes for some Americans to turn their backs on the free press?

CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned last week that neither WikiLeaks nor its founder Julian Assange were safe from what Pompeo believes to be "justice" for the media outlet's role in leaking classified or private information and communications to the public.

If the sources who have talked to CNN are telling the truth, Pompeo's threats aren't just bluster: The Department of Justice is mulling over whether to charge Assange with some sort of criminal behavior. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday that the Justice Department will "seek to put some people in jail" over leaks.

President Barack Obama's administration famously went after leakers. But they knew to target the people who actually leaked to the press, not the press itself. CNN notes that the Justice Department under Obama did mull over how to possibly get at Assange and WikiLeaks but couldn't figure out a way to do so without implicating other media outlets that also ran leaked classified information.

Under Donald Trump's administration, they seem to be less interested in that sort of distinction and are leaning heavily on the idea that Assange is a foreigner and doesn't get the "protection" of the First Amendment. That's not how the First Amendment works or is written and the American Civil Liberties Union is raising alarms at what the administration is considering:

Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, argued that US prosecution of Assange sets a dangerous precedent.

"Never in the history of this country has a publisher been prosecuted for presenting truthful information to the public," Wizner told CNN. "Any prosecution of WikiLeaks for publishing government secrets would set a dangerous precedent that the Trump administration would surely use to target other news organizations."

A lot of people who supported Hillary Clinton are furious with WikiLeaks these days and blame it and Assange for contributing to her defeat by publishing hacked emails from her campaign. Some even believe Assange is a willing stooge for the Russian government. As such, because some people don't like the consequences of what WikiLeaks has done, they seem more than fine with the idea that they should not have the same protections as media outlets they see as more "mainstream." Note some of the tweets at the bottom of this San Diego Union-Tribune piece. I think I'm most fascinated with the dueling concepts that Assange isn't protected by the First Amendment because he's a foreigner, but he's also a "traitor," even though he's not a U.S. citizen.

Allow the government to decide what is a real media outlet and what counts as journalism will only lead to bad places. It is the ultimate example of a slippery slope that decimates the concept of what a "free press" is. Sessions subsequently on CNN refused to rule out the possibility that other media outlets could also face prosecutions for publishing leaked information.

People who think WikiLeaks and Assange are bad guys because of what happened to Clinton need to stop for a minute and think about the consequences of an administration led by a man who is openly hostile to the concept of a free press claiming the authority to decide the circumstances by which the protections of the First Amendment applies. That so many people hate WikiLeaks makes it an easy political target. This is a test run. It will not stop here.

NEXT: This Video of Cops Arresting an Autistic 10-Year-Old Is the Case Against Police in Schools

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Are you pulling a Samantha Bee here, Shackleford?

    1. These masturbation euphemisms are getting personal!

      1. You just insulted Shackford in countless differ ways. But then again, you also implied that his penis could never bring anyone to laughter, which I guess is a compliment.

    2. Shakeford is not shrill, hackey, and Canadian.

    3. I don’t get it.

      1. Samantha Bee has a commercial for her show in which she’s pushing some “not the national correspondent’s dinner” special that she’ll be running. At the end, she makes the comment “let’s celebrate the free press while we still have one”.

  2. This is a massive mistake by Trump. He bemoans how terrible and biased our press is. Wikileaks, from my experience, are the most “take a shot at EITHER side” group out there. They don’t tend to be inaccurate. At the minimum, he should ignore them and let them do what they do. It might ensnare his administration, but why be afraid of that?

    I don’t care if CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, NPR, etc get turfed. Keep Wikileaks free.

    1. This is coming from the media. Until the US government charges Assange, I would not believe CNN.

      Why would Trump Administration officials leak that Assange is being considered for indictment? (1) Its not Trump administration officials but leftover Obama administration officials leaking the info (2) the media is lying for some media scheme (3) everything is as the media says and they have outstanding journalism for the first time in 8 years.

      The Obama administration has an axe to grind with Wikileaks, not Trump’s administration. Charging Assange with espionage or whatever is ridiculous since this guy is not American and has no legal obligation to protect American secrets. Once America arrests Assange, he is entitled to use the 1st Amendment protections for the press.

      1. loveconstitution1789: “The Obama administration has an axe to grind with Wikileaks, not Trump’s administration.

        FYI, Trump has an axe to grind with the press in general. He’s the guy which keeps calling every media outlet which publishes something even vaguely critical of him “fake news”. That makes Wikileaks “collateral damage”. If he can take them down, his next target will be someone like CNN or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or The Young Turks. If he can take one or more of them down, then it will be the turn of a more substantial pillar. Like the NY Times or the Washington Post.

        loveconstitution1789: “Charging Assange with espionage or whatever is ridiculous since this guy is not American and has no legal obligation to protect American secrets.

        So foreign spies cannot be arrest for, let alone convicted of, espionage because they have “no legal obligation to protect American secrets”?

        Methinks you’re confusing espionage with treason.

        I would note that 18 U.S. Code ? 798 is written such a way (“Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information…”) as to apply to anyone, not just US citizens

        1. I wonder why they think they have jurisdiction over actions that occurred outside the boundaries of the United States.

          1. Because the leaked secrets were American?

            1. Say for example a convoy from a US military base in Germany was going from one base to another.
              In between bases, someone steals one of the vehicles in the convoy and somehow gets away with it.
              The thief runs to his hideout and broadcasts all over the world what he did.
              This foolish act of course leads to his location being known.

              Who does the arresting? Germany of course
              Who does the prosecuting of the theft, assaults and whatnot? Germany of course, according to their laws and legal procedures.
              The US doesn’t get a crack at prosecuting the thief because the US has no jurisdiction outside of their bases in Germany.

              The Assange situation is not too dissimilar.

              If USGov believes that a foreign national in a foreign country received stolen US property, then they can petition the nation in which the alleged crime took place to arrest and prosecute him according to the laws in that nation for receiving property he had reason to believe was stolen. They could perhaps attempt to petition that foreign government to try him under that nations laws regarding espionage, but that’s about it.

  3. Once again, maybe these ‘journalists’ should not have gone down the Russiaphobia bullshit, because they were butt-hurt over the election. There is a delicious irony in the fact that those screaming ‘Russian stooge’ about Wikileaks and Trump are now so miffed that he bombed Syria and is going after Wikileaks.

    I guess you just have to lie in the bed that you’ve made. It also would have helped if these ‘reporters’ had not suddenly discovered threats to a free press after the last election. That eight year coma did not help their credibility.

        1. “Where?”

  4. You’d think reason writers would be getting wary of running with stories provided by ‘sources’.

  5. Who’s the bigger sociopath, Mike Pompeo or James Clapper?

    1. Yes.

  6. I’m most fascinated with the dueling concepts that Assange isn’t protected by the First Amendment because he’s a foreigner, but he’s also a “traitor,” even though he’s not a U.S. citizen.

    This scores points.

    1. Anyone calling him a traitor to the US is an idiot, but who’s doing that?

      1. Check the ACLU and Glenn Greenwald’s timelines on Twitter. No shortage of #Resistance members calling him a traitor and criminal.

      2. Check the ACLU’s and Glenn Greenwald’s feeds on Twitter. Plenty of #Resistance members calling him a traitor/criminal/Russian agent.

        1. Fix your damn server, Reason!

          1. Works fine for everyone else.

      3. Someone tweeted it in the piece Shackford linked. The article also says many people have that view, though the tweet is the only thing provided that uses that word. I’ve seen some angry liberals use it over the past year or so here or there. I think a lot of people don’t realize he isn’t American.

        1. I can show you 10,000 posts by members of a certain political inclination calling Michelle Obama a monkey if you like.

          1. We’re all monkeys.

            1. Monkey killing monkey killing monkey over pieces of the ground,
              Silly monkeys, give them thumbs,
              They make a club and beat their brother down.

              1. Monkey see, monkey do,
                monkey doo doo all over you.

          2. Ok, I wouldn’t claim that no one called her that, so what’s your point?

            1. It is not difficult to cherry pick a stupid person on this planet.

          3. How many people linked to “Bush or chimp”?

    2. I had no idea that the United States constitution extended First Amendment protections to Chinese citizens living in China! Geez, we should really go to war with them so their rights can stop being violated on a daily basis huh?

      And yeah, I understand that the concept of natural rights theoretically extends to everyone but as a practical matter it obviously does not.

      That isn’t intended to be a critique of Julian or the government, it’s just a fact. I am confused on how he could possibly be a traitor though, that’s a bizarre argument to make. Par for the course for Trump though, he’s pretty incoherent.

      1. The First Amendment is a restriction on the United States government, not the Chinese government. That’s simple enough to understand.

      2. It does. The US government can’t restrict the speech of Chinese people in China, or Martians on Mars or anything anywhere.

        1. Yes, but when considering a foreign news outlet what exactly is the U.S. going to do to them? The United States could in theory censor news from WikiLeak’s in it’s entirety by banning it in the United States.

          Should they? No. Should they be able to? No. Could they criminalize it for a United States citizen to look at it? Probably not. Should that pass Constitutional muster? No. Are there other banned materials, despite the 1st Amendment, in the United States? Yes. Look up books banned by the United States government.

          Hope that clarifies.

          1. Not really. I was saying something simple which is true (yes, in a fairly smug and flippant way). I don’t know what your response has to do with any of it. The 1st is a restriction on the US government. So it’s protections apply universally.

            1. I see your point, I was being equally flippant and ridiculous (and also less correct) so it’s probably what I deserved ^_^

        2. Zen: “The US government can’t restrict the speech of Chinese people in China, or Martians on Mars or anything anywhere.

          No, but it might pass a law prohibiting US corporations from allowing Chinese people living in China (or English people or French people living in Europe; or for that matter foreigners in general) from posting on Facebook or Instagram or Reason. Or uploading a video of political commentary to Youtube.

          Or for that matter a Chinese citizens posting a classified document from, say, the NSA to a US-based server. Say the Washington Post. Or the NY Times. Where in the First Amendment does its protection only apply to those who are US citizens?

          Let’s not forget that in today’s interconnected world you don’t have to be living in the US to publish something in the US. The First Amendment arguably prevents the US government prohibiting that sort of thing just as much as if the same kind of law targeted American citizens.

  7. Pretty sure the war on good ol’ Julio didn’t start with Trump, merely that it will continue as it has since the beginning.

    1. It’s different now because Trump. Trump and his band of alt-righties are going to do to the First Amendment what Obama and his band of proggies did to the Second!

      1. So, a bunch of mostly ineffective posturing?

        1. In essence, yes. But that won’t stop the other team from being horrified about how it’s being “gutted”.

        2. Heh, I was about to say the same thing Zeb.

    2. People are trying to audition for a job at the Washington Post here. Take your logic somewhere else

    3. Actually, the Obama DOJ explicitly went out of its way to avoid charging him, focusing on the likes of Chelsea Manning, instead:

      The Justice Department under President Barack Obama decided not to charge WikiLeaks for revealing some of the government’s most sensitive secrets ? concluding that doing so would be akin to prosecuting a news organization for publishing classified information. Justice Department leadership under President Trump, though, has indicated to prosecutors that it is open to taking another look at the case, which the Obama administration did not formally close.

      1. Shhh, let’s not let that get in the way of a virtue signaling circlejerk about how Shackford is auditioning for the Washington Post.

      2. That might have been the excuse Obama used, but I think the real reason is probably because WikiLeak’s isn’t in the United States at all. What would the Justice Department do, exactly? Ban them from the internet?

  8. Most people accept that during wartime the restrictions on the government are relaxed a little, including the restrictions on the government against restricting the rights of the citizenry. The Constitution is not a suicide pact, as they say. Whether it’s the Gulf War, the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, or the War on the Press, it’s still a war, ain’t it?

    1. Jerry skids: “Most people accept that during wartime the restrictions on the government are relaxed a little…

      War? What war?

      Is an AUMF the same as a declaration of war?

      And why stop there? There wasn’t even an AUMF during the Vietnam War. Did the “restrictions on the government” become relaxed during that war as well? if so, then presumably American liberties can be restricted by the simple ploy of a US president going off and bombing some foreign country.

      1. Like Libya?

        No Congressional authorization needed because it was a “kinetic military action”…

  9. Seeing as the left these days is more concerned about principals than principles as sarcasmic would always say, I don’t many will speak up in Assange’s defense.

    1. missing a think there. Where is the edit button Reason? It’s 2017!

  10. A slippery slope is really a logical fallacy.

    If there’s little or no difference between what Assange does and what an investigative reporter does, then arguing that prosecuting Assange for doing what reporters do is likely to lead to the threat of reporters being prosecuted for doing their jobs isn’t really a slippery slope.

    It’s a valid argument and a logical one.

  11. If President Trump’s War on the Press Starts with WikiLeaks, Who Will Rise to Assange’s Defense?

    Who cares? He’s building us a wall and bring back the buggy whip jobs by decree!

    1. Make America Braid Again!

  12. If President Trump’s War on the Press Starts with WikiLeaks, Who Will Rise to Assange’s Defense?

    The FSB?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.