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Assange's Arrest And Free Speech


Ben Wizner joins us now. He's director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. He's also been a legal adviser to Edward Snowden. Thanks so much for being with us.

BEN WIZNER: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: The U.S. charges against Julian Assange - I guess I should say so far - seem to pointedly be for hacking, not publishing any information. Do you believe it represents any kind of threat to a free press?

WIZNER: Well, you're right. This was not the indictment that free-speech activists were the most worried about. We were worried this would be the first time in the history of the country that the Justice Department brought charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This indictment doesn't represent that. Nevertheless, there is some cause for concern. The indictment itself describes a criminal conspiracy that includes the kinds of activities that investigative journalists do routinely - encouraging a source to provide more information, helping a source conceal her identity, using secure means of communication. The government sees all of those as elements of a criminal conspiracy. And that doesn't bode well, I think, for press freedom.

SIMON: In the time that Julian Assange has been in the embassy, haven't people grown a lot more concerned about the invasion of privacy that's involved in hacking and their right to privacy?

WIZNER: Well, let's be clear - he's actually not charged with having hacked anything...

SIMON: But trying to, right?

WIZNER: Well, I mean, the indictment makes clear that Chelsea Manning had already provided the hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks before they even had this agreement. But, again, I think that no one will dispute that information from this archive that was published was in the public interest, that some of it revealed evidence of war crimes, others - very important information that was published by The New York Times, by The Guardian, by Der Spiegel. Certainly, most journalists follow a publication model that's not the same as WikiLeaks and are more careful about redacting information that's not in the public interest and only publishing that which is. I think the difficulty for the government here is, how do you describe a set of conduct that WikiLeaks engages in that's criminal without also threatening the ordinary investigative journalism of more mainstream publications?

SIMON: How do you believe that the ordinary investigative journalism might be threatened?

WIZNER: There's a way in which investigative journalism looks like a criminal conspiracy. If an investigative journalist is talking to a national security source and says, tell me about X, Y or Z, the answer to that question is going to be a felony under U.S. law. But that happens on a very, very routine basis. That's what these reporters do. This indictment, which essentially describes those kinds of activities as being elements of a criminal conspiracy, is something we should worry about.

SIMON: Has Julian Assange really been a publisher? Or if I might put it this way, has he been doing Russia's laundry?

WIZNER: The law doesn't necessarily look at what somebody's intent is in publishing. Remember, if you're talking about Russia's laundry from the 2016 election, The New York Times did it, as well. So did most news entities in the United States. They all published from those hacks because they considered it to be in the public interest. And, again, this is why I think the Obama administration ultimately concluded not to bring these charges, even though all of these facts were known. They just didn't think that they could thread the needle and find a way to criminalize Assange, despite their profound dislike of him and his activities, without putting journalism itself in the crosshairs.

SIMON: And may I ask, is Julian Assange an appealing advertisement for free speech?

WIZNER: No one would choose Julian Assange to be the poster child for freedom of the press. What worries me is that these kinds of bad facts make bad law. If Assange is prosecuted here, he'll have no champions on the left or the right. Everyone here will, in some sense, applaud what happens to him personally. But those are the cases that can create precedents that will be used against people who are much more personally appealing.

SIMON: Ben Wizner directs the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. Thanks so much for being with us.

WIZNER: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.