May 24, 2019

What they're saying: Julian Assange indicted under Espionage Act

Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

New charges brought against Julian Assange on Thursday indicted the Wikileaks founder for revealing government secrets, marking the first time a publisher has been charged under the Espionage Act.

Why it matters: Prior administrations have resisted invoking the World War II-era Espionage Act against journalists, largely out of respect for the First Amendment.

Thursday's charges unleashed a firestorm of statements and opinions from legal minds, First Amendment advocates and politicians.

  • "The issue isn't whether Assange is a 'journalist'; this will be a major test case because the text of the Espionage Act doesn't distinguish between what Assange allegedly did and what mainstream outlets sometimes do, even if the underlying facts/motives are radically different," per a tweet from University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck.

What they're saying:

  • WikiLeaks tweeted: "This is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment."
  • NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: "The Department of Justice just declared war — not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media."
  • Former Alaska senator and 2020 presidential hopeful Mike Gravel tweeted: "No matter your thoughts on Julian Assange, the latest indictments—under the outdated Espionage Act—are a disgrace. If you support the indictments out of hate for him, you're giving Trump a weapon to restrict the press. The charges should be dropped and the Espionage Act repealed."
  • The ACLU released a statement saying: "For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment."
  • Committee to Protect Journalists' Executive Director Joel Simon wrote: "The indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information is an attack on the First Amendment and a threat to all journalists everywhere who publish information that governments would like to keep secret."
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released a statement: "This is not about Julian Assange. This is about the use of the Espionage Act to charge a recipient and publisher of classified information. I am extremely concerned about the precedent this may set and potential dangers to the work of journalists and the First Amendment.”
  • The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press released a statement saying: "Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist."

The other side:

  • Head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division John Demers said, "Some say that Assange is a journalist and that he should be immune from prosecution for these actions. The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy. But Julian Assange is no journalist. This is made plain by the totality of his conduct as alleged in the indictment.”

Go deeper: Timeline: Julian Assange's 9-year legal limbo reaches its climax

Go deeper

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