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WikiLeaks Assange

Protesters demonstrate outside court May 1 where Julian Assange was scheduled to appear in London. The Justice Department has charged Assange with receiving and publishing classified information. The charges are contained in a new, 18-count indictment announced May 23.

Open question to historians: Was the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution written in pencil?

Because lately it feels like some folks have been trying to take an eraser to that little bit about a free press.

Two recent incidents that rightly have garnered national attention — a police raid on an investigative journalist’s home and new charges brought against the founder of WikiLeaks — have raised concerns about an erosion of the free press.

On May 10, San Francisco police raided the home of freelance reporter Bryan Carmody after he refused to reveal a source. Police bashed in Carmody’s door with a sledgehammer and handcuffed him for hours while they seized equipment and documents.

Carmody acquired a police report on the death of a prominent public defender and sold copies of the report and his reporting to news outlets. Police said they suspect Carmody was involved in a criminal conspiracy.

And last week the federal government introduced 17 new charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The charges were brought under the federal Espionage Act for Assange’s role in the publication of information regarding national defense.

First Amendment advocates — ideally that would include literally everyone — have expressed concerns about both incidents.

In the Assange case, attorneys for the federal Justice Department said they do not view Assange as a journalist.

That does not make many journalists, including this one, any less uneasy about the federal government prosecuting an individual for acquiring and publishing information and documents from government sources. That sounds an awful lot like a national security reporter’s job.

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The New York Times’ editorial board wrote the charges “could have a chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practiced for generations,” and said they are “aimed straight at the heart of the First Amendment.”

You will find few traditional journalists who would give their blessing to the manner in which Assange helped to obtain and publish the information through WikiLeaks. That’s not the point here.

What’s concerning is the federal government bringing charges against an individual — whether or not anyone views that individual as a journalist — for acquiring and publishing information regarding national security, and the government’s use of the Espionage Act, which was designed to target foreign spies, not journalists.

Similarly upsetting is the episode in San Francisco, where police obtained a search warrant after Carmody refused to reveal his source. What’s more, California has state laws designed to shield reporters from being forced to reveal their sources.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board wrote, “the police might as well have taken their sledgehammer to the United States Constitution.”

In order for our democracy to work, journalists must have the ability to acquire and publish sensitive information from sources inside our government. It is incumbent upon those journalists to publish any such material in a careful and thoughtful manner.

The government should not be turning journalism into criminal actions. And yet that’s exactly what we have seen in these two cases.

That should be unsettling to any who values the free press, which the country’s founders placed right at the top of the Bill of Rights.

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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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State house reporter for The Courier/Lee Enterprises.

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