In calling on citizens to Tweet the digital address of WikiLeaks, civil liberties activist John Perry Barlow was right to declare that an infowar is on, and online citizens its soldiers. But the WikiLeaks army is not one I will join.
Many people I respect, including my Editor in Chief Evan Hansen, want WikiLeaks to receive the First Amendment freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to the press. Like any freedom, however, freedom of the press inevitably conflicts with other values, and has never been absolute. It exists only to the extent that people and institutions respect it, and is shaped by ongoing negotiations between principle, consequence and expedience.
In a string of landmark Supreme Court decisions on press freedom -- New York Times Co. v. United States, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., Near v. Minnesota, Food Lion v. Capital Cities, Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart -- a common theme emerges: The press can legitimately justify claims to free speech, even when they intrude on claims of national security or due processs or privacy, because of its own care in excercising those freedoms.
Sometimes the Court -- Supreme, or that of public opinion -- upholds them. Sometimes it curtails them. But even curtailments are narrow, and press freedom can be defended in good faith against powerful, often legitimate criticisms because the press acts carefully, with thoughtfulness appropriate to the implications of their freedom. The Pentagon Papers, to use a popular example, were published only after exhaustive editorial reflection, balancing potential harm against potential good.
With freedom comes reponsibility. The New York Times and Washington Post fulfilled their end of the bargain. Against executive and military pressure, the Supreme Court upheld the speech of grown-ups. Julian Assange's intentions are noble and his courage inspiring; should he be charged with crime by the United States, I hope he walks away free or escapes from jail. But to receive the protections of a free press, he must accept the responsibilities of a free press. He has not.
Instead he's avoided them. Many of the latest WikiLeaks documents benefit the public, or could, and many could result in great personal harm; rather than weighing the consequences, document by document, he released them all, and absolved himself of any further duty or obligation -- of any practical conscience -- by invoking his own ideological absolute good, transparency. The ends justified the means.
Much about WikiLeaks is right. But so long as its operators refuse the moral duties incumbent upon a free press, it can't expect to be free.
Image: The New York Times on Sunday, June 13, 1971, via PBS.
Note: I subsequently wrote a gallery for Wired.com on science- and environment-related leaks from the diplomat document release, which felt more than a little hypocritical. On the other hand, since the information is out there for anyone to see, shouldn't it be covered. My final answer to this dilemma was to donate the money I received to Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom organization that's condemned Assange's irresponsibility but fought to keep WikiLeaks online. That seems just about right.