Imminent Threat: When Can We Stop a Publication?

WikiCommonsThe trial of Private Bradley Manning, the man accused of leaking thousands of documents to whistleblower website WikiLeaks, began on June 3, 2013.  Established by Julian Assange in 2006, WikiLeaks is a website dedicated to “bring[ing] important news and information to the public.”1 It has published millions of secret documents from governments around the world. Recently, WikiLeaks has publicly declared its support for Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who revealed the details of the United States government’s surveillance programs with a scope that left many citizens outraged. This support, along with Manning’s trial, has brought Julian Assange and WikiLeaks back into the national spotlight, and raises questions about the rights of such sites to publish leaked material. WikiLeaks became famous after it released documents describing the United States’ treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Since then, the site’s actions have become incredibly controversial. In his book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a high ranking member of the organization from 2007-2010, explains how the site had many internal problems with secrecy and mistrust.2 He describes Assange as inherently irresponsible, never taking the blame for any of the mistakes that WikiLeaks made. Assange has also been accused of “forc[ing] sex on one woman […] and penetrating [another] while she slept.”3 Inside, the organization has many problems with staff quarrels and mistrust, but publicly, its purpose remains the same. Regardless of the WikiLeaks’ interior, it is still a legitimate press organization. Should the US government have the power to stop WikiLeaks because it is dangerous, or is it simply exercising a fundamental right: freedom of speech?

As the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech is clearly a core American value. Although founded in the law, it is nevertheless useful to consider freedom of speech to be a universal right, not one granted by a country, but given to everyone, regardless of nationality or citizenship. Historically, the people of the United States have only accepted restrictions on speech in very specific circumstances. Many would cite that “you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater” as a perfect example of limited speech, and support this application of the law because of the protection it provides.

In contrast to yelling “fire” in a movie theater, WikiLeaks offers up a whole different ball game. One cannot easily say what damages a leak can cause. This, coupled with the fact that one can imagine a situation in which a leak could potentially be dangerous, such as revealing troop movements, would cause some to believe that the organization should be stopped. Since the impact of its publications are unclear, and they have the potential to be dangerous, one might say this justifies suspending freedom of speech. Such an argument, however, is inherently flawed. By employing such logic, nothing would ever be published. One cannot absolutely determine that a publication will not harm anyone.

Whether news related, literary, scientific, or otherwise, any category of speech has the potential to endanger someone. A work of literature, for instance, can have a profound impact on a society or set of people because of the ideas it contains, which could possibly lead to violence. However, just because such ideas are potentially dangerous does not mean they should be censored. Not only should these ideas be allowed to be published, but their impact can rarely be measured beforehand.  It is virtually impossible to know what the impact of a piece of literature or a leak will have on the world, or a state’s national security. Since it is so difficult to determine that a piece of writing will not have a negative impact, by assuming anything potentially threatening should be stopped would result in the censorship of almost all publications. Freedom of speech cannot be a core value if almost all speech is censored. It would create a clear hypocrisy in American society. In order to preserve the value of free speech, almost all ideas, beliefs, opinions, and news material need to be unrestricted. Therefore, limitation on freedom of speech must be reserved for only the most extreme situations. A perfectly legitimate example of such a situation would be when a publication, such as a leak, could seriously threaten national security.

Naturally, the next step is to consider what exactly is dangerous to national security. What the government defines as a dangerous leak is very contentious. Since the Departments of State and Defense do not want to look weak to foreign entities, they may have incentives to publicly represent a leak as harmful. Their image depends on keeping secrets secure. The institutions would want to censor stories while also saying that no harmful leaks occurred. Unfortunately, they cannot have it both ways. In order to justifiably restrict speech, there must be credible reasons to believe it will severely damage national security. In order to do this, the State or Defense Department would have to admit to a damaging leak. One could argue that this unreasonably burdens the bureaucracy, that they should not have to choose between looking bad and letting out dangerous information. But this actually creates the perfect balance: by forcing the departments to make this difficult decision, it forces them to seriously consider whether or not it is worth limiting this valuable right. The censorship, therefore, would be exercised only on extreme occasions.

In the rare circumstances in which a threat is absolutely imminent, as in troop movements, then a better case can be made for preemptively stopping a publication. WikiLeaks could potentially reach this point, however, at the moment it has not. WikiLeaks may be an unsavory organization with its potentially criminal founder and internal secrets, but its inner workings are irrelevant. Arguments can be made day and night about the ethics of Manning and Snowden leaking information; however, the righteousness of their actions does not change the way in which freedom of speech relates to press organizations. Censorship of content must be restricted to only the most extreme circumstances. In order to keep our integrity, and prevent hypocrisy in our values, we must allow the press, whether the Washington Post, People Magazine, or WikiLeaks, to continue publishing its content.