From its earliest years the United States has found ways to deny the rights of a free press when it was politically expedient to do so.
One of the latest ways was to arrest WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange four years ago today and to indict him — the first time a publisher and journalist has ever been charged under the 1917 Espionage Act for possessing and publishing state secrets.
Though two U.S. administrations came close to punishing journalists for revealing defense information, they both failed, until Assange.
A major hurdle for the government is overcoming the conflict between the Espionage Act and the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from passing any law, including the Act, that abridges press freedom.
Until that legal conflict is resolved in court, resulting in parts of the Espionage Act being found unconstitutional, the language of the Act threatening press freedom remains.
Bolstered by 1950 amendments to the Act, the Donald Trump administration crossed a redline to arrest a journalist. A 1961 amendment made it possible to indict a non-U.S. citizen, acting outside U.S. territory.
The Trump administration’s first indictment of a publisher opened an alarming precedent for the future of journalism.