Joint Statement of the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors on the Indictment of Julian Assange

The American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors, who will soon merge to become the largest membership association for editors of daily news publications in the United States, are troubled by the indictment of WikiLeaks leader, Julian Assange, on seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act. This indictment threatens newsgathering and publication activities that are clearly protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in a way that will ultimately harm the public's right to receive important information on matters of public concern.
To be clear: we are offering no opinion on whether Julian Assange is a journalist. However, we would be remiss if we did not note the further danger in the apparent decision to move forward with the prosecution of Mr. Assange because he is not a journalist. Allowing the Department of Justice – or any government entity – to decide who is and is not a journalist raises another dangerous constitutional issue.

The designation may be irrelevant, but the danger is not: the indictment seeks to punish activities journalists engage in on a regular basis, such as generally seeking and/or passively accepting information of interest to the public. We are very concerned about those portions of the indictment which seek to punish publication of even classified information. There has never been a successful prosecution of a journalist (or any non-governmental individual) for publication of classified information in the more than 100-year existence of the Espionage Act – and for good reason: it will chill journalists and other speakers who have legally obtained information necessary to the oversight of government activities from publishing similar information in the future. These dangers have been recognized time and again in the past 100 years, with lawmakers and law enforcement exercising necessary restraint because they understand that publication of even classified information is warranted in many situations, with examples ranging from the Pentagon Papers' shedding light on our policies in Vietnam, to the disclosure of the CIA “Black Site” prisons and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

It is truly unfortunate – and potentially dangerous – that the same restraint has not been exercised here.