Julian Assange a champion for free speech, not a criminal

By Luke Wilusz

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has gained international notoriety throughout the past year after his organization published a video of American soldiers in a helicopter firing on a crowd of unarmed Iraqi civilians. WikiLeaks later released hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department, which only served to fuel Assange’s notoriety and the desire of many major governments worldwide to get their hands on him for legal action.

In December 2010, Assange was arrested in London regarding sexual assault allegations from two women in Sweden. The Swedish government is currently trying to extradite Assange, even though no charges were filed against him, and he is allegedly only wanted for questioning. The U.S. Justice Department is also working to build a case against Assange in an attempt to prosecute him for publishing state secrets.

That last part is certainly a disturbing prospect. Ignoring Assange’s personal life, his work with WikiLeaks should be viewed as heroic rather than criminal. He is a champion for free speech and transparency in government and business, and those are causes every American citizen should support.

Governments and corporations often engage in all sorts of wrongdoing they hope the people will never find out about. They definitely aren’t going to come forward and announce what they’ve done. It’s safe to say the U.S. government was never planning to release the video of soldiers murdering unarmed civilians to the public.

However, the people have a right to know about these things. Governments should always have to answer to their citizens and be held responsible for their actions. If aspects of our government are committing crimes or atrocities, we have a right to know. And if the government isn’t going to be open about it, we must rely on journalists and organizations such as WikiLeaks to bring the truth out into the open.

Journalists and whistleblowers have long served as an important check on people in power. Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times was a momentous occasion in journalism history, and WikiLeaks’ work is equally significant. Any move to criminalize such work would be an affront to our First Amendment rights and the integrity of our free society.

On Feb. 3, New York’s Columbia University held a panel during which New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and The Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger discussed Assange’s legal situation. Both editors said they would wholeheartedly back Assange if he were ever extradited to the U.S. and prosecuted for his actions with WikiLeaks.

At the panel, Keller said it would be difficult to imagine “a prosecution of Julian Assange that wouldn’t stretch the law to be applicable to us. Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange … journalists should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that intends to punish Assange for doing what journalists do.”

Such a prosecution, if successful, would indeed have severe implications for the American media. It would set a precedent for the prosecution of other journalists who publish secret government information. As such, it could significantly undermine the media’s ability to do their job and fulfill their responsibility to keep the public informed.

There’s little doubt the government will continue to pursue Assange’s prosecution. No calls from the media or warnings of First Amendment implications will stop it. However, the American people should be aware of the true repercussions of such a prosecution and do everything they can to speak out against it.

If Assange is convicted and the government gains the power to inch us slowly away from being an open society, the only people who will benefit are the ones who have something to hide—and they’re the ones we should be worrying about the most.