Over two dozen civil organizations banded together on Wednesday to speak out against actions that would limit the free speech of journalists.
In the wake of the disclosure of thousands of US diplomatic cables by secrets website WikiLeaks, some government officials have called for legal or military reprisals against the organization and its founder, Julian Assange.
“We urge caution against any legislation that could weaken the principles of free expression vital to a democratic society or hamper online freedoms,” the groups declared in an open letter to Congress (.pdf).
Government officials “have rashly proposed legislation that could limit the free speech of legitimate news reporting agencies well beyond Wikileaks,” the continued.
“These actions have created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among the general public, leading them to question their rights with regard to the documents posted by Wikileaks. As you continue to discuss these critically important issues, we urge you to do so in a way that respects the constitutional rights of publishers and the public that have been recognized by the Supreme Court.”
They outlined a series of legal precedents that Congress should consider before potentially criminalizing what WikiLeaks has done. They are:
• Publishers have a First Amendment right to print truthful political information free of prior restraint, as established in New York Times v. United States.
• Publishers are strongly protected by the First Amendment against liability for publishing truthful political information that is lawfully obtained, even if the original disclosure of that information to the publisher was unlawful, under Bartnicki v. Vopper.
• Internet users have a First Amendment right to receive information, as repeatedly endorsed by a series of Supreme Court cases, including Stanley v. Georgia.
• The public has a First Amendment right to voice opinions about government activities. This is core political speech, which receives the highest protection under the Constitution.
“It will be especially critical for members of Congress to keep these rights in mind as they consider any future legislation that may impact freedom of expression. In a free country, the government cannot and does not have unlimited power to determine what publishers can publish and what the public can read,” the letter concluded.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) said recently that he did not believe WikiLeaks committed a crime.
“[B]eing unpopular is not a crime, and publishing offensive information is not either,” he said. “And the repeated calls from politicians, journalists, and other so-called experts crying out for criminal prosecutions or other extreme measures make me very uncomfortable.”
The US Department of Justice said it was investigating whether it could charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with espionage or conspiracy, but no formal charges had yet been issued.
The following is a list of civil rights groups that signed the letter to Congress:
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Civil Liberties Union
American Library Association
Arizona First Amendment Coalition
Association of Research Libraries
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Bob Barr, Former Congressman and Chairman, Liberty Guard, Inc.
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Digital Democracy
Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights
Communication Is Your Right!
Courage to Resist
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Feminists for Free Expression
First Amendment Coalition
Government Accountability Project
Muslimah Writers Alliance
National Coalition Against Censorship
New America Foundation
New Media Rights
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Progressive Librarians Guild
Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University