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WikiLeaks and the First Amendment

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COMMENTS

19 January 2011 12:02

The WikiLeaks saga is a powerful moment in the long battle between First Amendment freedom and the interests of the Official Secrets culture. To use a line from a previous argument in this space, the Wikileaks debate goes to a fundamental question: who do we think we are'

Bringing up the US First Amendment is no arcane reference. If Julian Assange ends up before a US court, the bludgeon aimed at his head will be the WW1-inspired blunt instrument, the 1917 Espionage Act. His best shield will be the protection of free speech and the press in the First Amendment. The US would try to nail Assange for enabling the mass leakage of secrets. Assange would claim the protection of being a publisher, no different to the New York Times.

A word on First Amendment freedom beyond the US borders, as a driving force for journalism and globalisation. When talking to various audiences about journalism, I usually refer to one of the most revolutionary bits of political/legal language ever laid down by statute: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or of the Press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.'

One paragraph grants freedom of religion and freedom to oppose government, plus elevates the free speech rights inherent in the press so the people can most effectively assemble and petition against their own government. Talk about the Enlightenment on steroids. Celebrating its 220th birthday this year, the First Amendment enshrines a set of sentiments which are still crashing and reverberating around the world.

Any culture can find it confronting to have its own values played back to it from a foreign setting. The US is having some problems with the way the First Amendment has globalised. For much of the 20th century, only Western states had free media, but by century's end, First Amendment journalism was finding lots of new homes. Al Jazeerah was the first Middle East TV network to report on the US using America's own journalistic culture. Washington found this an extremely disturbing experience.

WikiLeaks joins Al Jazeerah as a powerful expression of the same phenomenon: First Amendment culture in a global setting.

In the battle between the Official Secrets culture and First Amendment freedom, the Secrets side often win. That's because secrecy serves the interests of politicians, bureaucrats and powerful interests. Australia follows British precedent in the strength of the secrecy instinct. In Canberra, the default setting is secrecy, and the argument is about how much can safely be made public. The question is posed as, 'How much can we safely tell people''. The real equation usually pivots on, 'How much of this will cause us political or administrative damage''

Posing this as a battle between Freedom and Secrecy is what I mean by the claim that WikiLeaks should cause some anguish about who we actually are, both as a society and the way we are governed. State the argument in its strongest form: where would you rather live, in a First Amendment world or an Official Secrets universe' 

Just to show how loaded this question is, please note that the countries most deeply embedded in the Official Secrets universe are the ones with the strongest secret police. China and North Korea spring to mind. And Putin's Russia shows the problem of so embracing the Official Secrets side that it becomes respectable for a former spook to become leader. The First Amendment enshrines in one paragraph much of the DNA of US soft power. If the US tries to use the Espionage Act to crush Assange, America will be going to war with one of its greatest creations.

Photo by Flickr user jypsegen.

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