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WikiLeaks: Would First Amendment protect Julian Assange?

The First Amendment shields the publication of truthful information, legally acquired. But what if the information is gotten illegally? If prosecutors go after Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, it could be under the 1917 Espionage Act.

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange takes his seat during a news conference at the Geneva press club Nov. 4.

Martial Trezzini/AP/File

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his organization have made lots of people in the US government angry. The Justice Department is threatening to prosecute them for publishing online a vast trove of secret US diplomatic documents.

But isn’t there such a thing as free speech in America? Wouldn’t the First Amendment protect Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks from Washington’s threats?

Maybe not. The WikiLeaks document dump in fact appears to fall into an unresolved area of US law. The First Amendment strongly shields the publication of truthful information, legally acquired. But what if the information is gotten illegally? That’s another issue entirely.

You’d think that the Supreme Court would have settled this question long ago, given all the years that have passed since the First Amendment was adopted. But it hasn’t.

Supreme Court justices have not resolved the question of “whether, in cases where information has been acquired unlawfully by a newspaper or by a source, government may ever punish not only the unlawful acquisition, but the ensuing publication as well,” concludes a Congressional Research Service analysis of the issue [PDF] published on October 10.

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