Assange indictment is a new step in attack on free press
In light of the Trump regime's indictment against Julian Assange for publishing classified materials, there has been some debate as to whether this constitutes a threat to the freedom of the press as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Washington Post has published a series of op-eds from different people making the case for and against.
Randall D. Eliason takes the position that the Assange indictment is not a general threat to press freedoms as it is clearly just a one-off against a particularly noxious individual who was actively trying to harm the U.S. government and its agents by publishing sensitive information that actually could harm national security.
But despite the president’s bluster, the Assange case is probably a one-off. It involves not a routine leak but one of the largest disclosures of classified information in U.S. history. When announcing the indictment, Justice Department officials took great pains to note the department’s respect for the role of the media and that Assange was not being charged for the mere receipt and publication of classified information. It’s hard to imagine even this administration willingly igniting the constitutional conflagration that would result from expanding this theory of prosecution beyond the unique facts of the Assange case.
The historic tension between a government trying to keep some secrets and a free press seeking to hold government accountable generally has served this country well. Within that constant back and forth, there should be room to allow the pursuit of bad actors such as Assange without inhibiting legitimate journalism. Given President Trump’s attacks on what he calls the “fake news,” there is certainly cause for vigilance. But absent actual signs to the contrary, we shouldn’t assume that the skirmish over Assange signals the opening of a new front in the president’s personal war on the media.
The problem here is that everything Eliason says in his column contradicts his conclusion. According to Eliason, the indictment against Assange does not signal "the opening of a new front in the president's personal war on the media," but he also acknowledges that the case against Assange is "unique" and that previous indictments for whistleblowing were "against the leakers who violated the law and their job duties, not journalists who published the information." This means that it is by definition "a new front" in the battle against press freedom that Trump is going after a publisher.
So what Eliason seems to be saying in his column is that despite the fact that Trump is clearly breaking new ground in prosecuting a publisher of classified information, there's no reason to believe that he would apply this logic to journalists in general because Assange is a uniquely "bad actor" and not a "legitimate" journalist. But why would we accept that Trump wouldn't go after more traditional journalists? The fact that he's doing it at all means that Trump is willing to ignite "the constitutional conflagration" that Eliason claims he'd be too afraid to do.
Eliason makes a distinction between Assange and WikiLeaks and more traditional publishing organizations like the Washington Post, stating, "In the past, government authorities could expect that journalists who obtained classified material would fact-check what they received, contact the government for comment, and at least consider arguments that publishing the information would endanger national security. Mainstream journalists still do that today." This, however, simply begs the question. That publishers often contact the government for comment and consider whether or not to publish based on the government's arguments against doing so does not preclude the government from deciding to prosecute those publishers if they do in fact decide to publish against the government's wishes.
Furthermore, the idea that Trump won't decide to prosecute more traditional publishers of classified information may well be true, even if there's no reason to believe it based on the information at hand, but Trump will only be in the White House until January 2025 at the latest. Who knows who will occupy the Oval Office in the future, or what they'd be willing to do? That Trump set the precedent means that future presidents will inevitably use that as pretext to go further. Liberty is generally lost in increments, and that's what Trump's indictment against Julian Assange represents regardless of how you feel about Assange personally.