CPJ urges US not to prosecute Assange

December 17, 2010

Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461

Eric H. Holder Jr.
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530
Via facsimile: +1 202-616-7290

Dear President Obama and Attorney General Holder:

We write because of deep concern about reports that you are considering the prosecution of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange for publishing classified cables and other documents. Based on everything we know about these events, we urge you to avoid such action. Our concern flows not from an embrace of Assange’s motives and objectives. Indeed, we wish that he would fully disclose his sources of financing and support. But the Constitution protects the right to publish information of important interest to the public. That right has been upheld through decades of American jurisprudence and has served the people well.

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the implications of prosecuting Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act. We believe that such a prosecution could encourage the government to assert legal theories applying equally to all news media, which would be highly dangerous to the public interest. History shows that Congress didn’t intend the law to apply to news reporting. Over nearly a century, the government has refrained from using the act against the media. To reverse these long-standing positions would threaten grave damage to the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and the press.

As CPJ seeks to defend freedom of expression and the safety and rights of journalists around the world, we find that by far the largest share of imprisoned journalists are jailed on antistate charges, including publishing information that governments deem secret. In the past, we have been proud to point to the United States as a place where journalists may not be jailed because they published something that offends government officials. It would be an incalculable loss to freedom everywhere if America lost its role as a shining example, and authoritarian governments abroad could say they were only doing what the United States was doing in jailing reporters or editors for what they published.

CPJ urges the Justice Department to protect freedom of speech and the press, along with the country’s global reputation as a beacon of those values, by standing back from any prosecution of WikiLeaks or Assange for publishing classified documents.


Paul E. Steiger

Joel Simon
Executive Director