There is a circular quality to this argument: Assange is not a journalist because he's a criminal, and he's a criminal because he's not a journalist. But for constitutional purposes, it does not matter whether Marc Thiessen, Attorney General Eric Holder or anyone else considers Assange a journalist.
"Freedom of the press" does not mean the freedom of those individuals who are lucky enough to be officially recognized as members of the Fourth Estate. It means the freedom to use technologies of mass communication, which today include the Internet. This freedom does not amount to much if the government can deny it to someone by questioning his journalistic credentials.
The government could try to avoid First Amendment problems by accusing Assange of conspiring with Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who is charged with leaking the Pentagon and State Department documents. Such a conspiracy could be a crime under the Espionage Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits disclosure of sensitive national defense or foreign relations information obtained through unauthorized computer access. But so far no evidence has emerged that Assange was any more culpable in the leaks than a reporter who receives confidential information from a government source.
There is another way to stop anger over the WikiLeaks document dumps from turning into an assault on the First Amendment. Assuming the allegations against Manning are true, the government should be asking why its own data security practices are so shoddy that a single low-ranking soldier with computer access was able to divulge such a huge trove of supposedly secret information.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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