AEJMC releases statement on leak prosecutions

Editor’s note: Kyu Ho Youm is president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, a nonprofit academic organization of more than 3,600 journalism and mass communication educators, students and media professionals. AEJMC is committed to “defend and maintain freedom of communication in an effort to achieve better professional practice and a better informed public.” For more information, visit the website www.aejmc.org.

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) is committed to freedom of speech and the press in the United States and abroad. AEJMC believes that this commitment must include a free exchange of information and ideas, even some information that the U.S. government considers or wishes to be “secret.”

The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and the existence of clandestine CIA prisons are examples in which secret government information was leaked to, and publicized, by the news media. In these and in many other cases, the dissemination of secret information served a greater good to American society by informing the public and by allowing for a needed debate on the ethics of secret government policies and covert actions.

We believe that a democracy shrouded in secrecy encourages corruption, and we agree, as Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

AEJMC, therefore, calls attention to the current administration’s zeal in prosecuting those in government who leak secret information. Only three times in its first 92 years was the Espionage Act of 1917 used to prosecute government officials for leaking secret information to the press. However, the current administration already has brought six charges under this act. The accused in all of these cases appear to represent whistleblowers, not those engaged in attempted espionage for foreign governments that “aid the enemy.”

We caution that the prosecution of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a trove of secret data to the WikiLeaks website, appears to be excessively punitive, with a chilling effect on a democracy’s requisite freedom of speech and the press. The release of this information advanced and clarified public debate on the morality of U.S. policy. Some observers even suggest that the honest (albeit secret) diplomatic assessments of Middle Eastern regimes helped spark the Arab Spring.

Manning already has admitted in military court that he did break the law through his actions. But to accuse him of “aiding the enemy” is egregious, given his credible stated intentions and the global breadth of the dissemination.

The government’s current approach toward leak prosecutions sends a message to the rest of the world that the United States’ actions are not fully aligned with its stated “exceptional” commitment to freedom of speech and the press as a human right.

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Therefore, in recognition of the historical benefits of leaked information to our nation and to the principles and values of democracy, in particular the freedom of speech and the press, AEJMC calls on the U.S. government to make prosecutions as rare as possible, to consider the credible intent of the accused in these prosecutions, and to seek punishment that is proportionate and commensurate, not only with credible intent, but also with resulting harm and benefit to our democracy, its principles and values. Furthermore, we ask that prosecutors consider reviewing existing press leak cases in light of the public good and the First Amendment. AEJMC believes that this will ensure an environment in which the public will continue to be served through the occasional leaking of secret information by those whose credible intent was the public good.

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