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Shield bill is a threat to free speech

In an op-ed in today's New York Times, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone sounds a warning over the threat to free speech posed by the so-called Shield bill. The bill has been introduced in response to the Wikileaks disclosures, and would amend to Espionage Act of 1917 to make it a crime for any person to disseminate "in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States," any classified information "concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States."

I have little time for Julian Assange and Wikileaks. My main problem is with his over-blown claims that his group's disclosures provide a form of political opposition to the US and other Western nations. As I (and others) have pointed out before, the revelations are mostly mundane, there is no inherent virtue in transparency for its own sake, and conspiracy theories (which Wikileaks encourages) are backward. Rather than challenging the US government, the disclosures show the diplomats as coming across more favorably than not.

But I'm against any attempt to silence Wikileaks with the law, as the Shield bill does. Wikileaks is not a proper journalistic enterprise, but it should be afforded the same rights as traditional media, because it obtains the materials second-hand.

The case is different for the government employees who pledge to keep secrets. They are the leakers, not Wikileaks. As Stone notes:

The First Amendment does not compel the government transparency. It leaves the government extraordinary autonomy to protect its own secrets. It does not accord anyone the right to have the government disclose information about its actions or policies, and it cedes to the government considerable authority to restrict the speech of its employees. What it does not do, however, is allow the government to suppress the free speech of others when it has failed to keep its own secrets.

First lawmakers urged the government to prosecute Wikileaks under the 1917 Espionage Act. After finally conceding that Wikileaks is not guilty under that Act, they are now trying to get around that law. Whatever you think of Wikileaks, if you support free speech, you must oppose this bill.

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