Today’s British High Court ruling said that Julian Assange (WikiLeaks founder) may be extradited by the United States for Espionage Act accusations. This could lead to him being sentenced for his involvement in the leakage of classified documents to the general public.
In 2019, Assange was charged with 17 counts of disclosing and receiving classified U.S. documents and one count conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for helping Chelsea Manning to access classified documents and send them to WikiLeaks. Assange, who was being held hostage in Ecuadorian Embassy London in June 2012 to fight extradition by Sweden due to allegations of sexual misconduct, would eventually be released. Assange lost his asylum protections in Ecuador and was detained by British authorities. The U.S. Department of Justice released Assange’s indictment a month later.
Assange tried to fight extradition to the United States. U.K. district judge Vanessa Baraitser from the Westminster Magistrates Court in January 2021 ruled in Assange’s favour. However, this decision was made without respecting journalists’ right to release information free from government sanction. Baraitser acknowledged that such an argument had been rejected in lower courts. European and British journalists don’t enjoy the same protections as the First Amendment of the United States. Baraitser instead ruled that Assange’s mental well-being was being threatened by America’s federal prison system. She rejected Assange’s extradition out of fear that she would be left in isolation and suffer further mental decline.
U.S. Justice Department told the U.K. Government that this wouldn’t occur, and British High Court judges, Ian Burnett, and Timothy Holroyde cleared extradition. American officials assured Assange that he would not be placed in solitary confinement, or transferred to the federal high security prison in Colorado “unless” he did something that was subsequent to these assurances.
This, obviously, is a ridiculous assurance. Federal detention systems can send inmates to solitary confinement without warning. Manning was also threatened with isolation for her “attempted disrespect”, possession of banned books and magazines under administrative segregation and medicine misuse in relation to expired toothpaste. Manning was also warned about pushing food on the floor. In fact, she was sent to isolation confinement to attempt suicide in 2016. This is exactly what U.K. Judges are concerned might happen to Assange.
Of course, the bigger worry is that Assange’s arrest could result in Assange being charged with threatening the freedom of anyone who participates in any form of journalism. Assange’s actions were reckless, and therefore he should not be considered an actual journalist. However, the First Amendment’s protections of free speech are intended to give the government no power over who is or isn’t a journalist. Although journalism is a job for some people, the act of writing can be done by all.
Anyone who does journalism professionally or independently is very concerned that the government can decide to publish information it has kept secret as “reckless”/”irresponsible”, and thus unprotected under the First Amendment. In October, the American Civil Liberties Union joined nearly two dozen civil liberties groups in writing a letter to Attorney general Merrick Garland urging him not to charge Assange. The letter stated that Assange’s criminal case “poses a serious threat to freedom of press both here in America and internationally.”
After the release of the extradition decision, Jamel Jaffer (executive director, Knight First Amendment Institute, Columbia University) expressed similar concerns today.
We continue to have profound concerns about the press-freedom implications of this prosecution….This is the first time the government has sought to use the Espionage Act against a publisher. The indictment also focuses heavily on the activities of investigative journalists. This indictment demonstrates that the activities of investigative journalists are not only unprotected by First Amendment, but illegal under the Espionage Act.
Jaffer stated that “The Trump government should not have filed the indictment. And we ask for the Biden administration’s permission to withdraw it.”