As comedian Dave Chappelle said to nervous laughter in his 2019 Mark Twain Prize acceptance speech, "The First Amendment is first for a reason."
"The Second Amendment [right to bear arms]," Chappelle added, "is just in case the first one doesn't work out."
Free expression is the alternative to violent coercion, a path to consensus and justice.
So congratulations to Nobel Peace Prize recipients Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa — and to journalists worldwide who indirectly share their prize, along with the risks of a profession forever under siege ("Freedom of expression a 'precondition of democracy and lasting peace,' " Opinion Exchange, Oct. 9).
Free speech is foundational. Whatever policy goals are closest to your heart, your advocacy is dependent upon being able to access and share truthful information.In America, it all rides on the First Amendment.
The groundwork was laid in 1735 when New York publisher John Peter Zenger was jailed for printing truthful but critical information. His lawyer Andrew Hamilton secured his freedom with a landmark oration:
"... It is a right [that all] are entitled to complain when they are hurt. They have a right publicly to remonstrate against the abuses of power … to put their neighbors upon their guard against the craft or open violence of men in authority."
The antagonism between journalism and authority has remained unchanged across centuries. A publisher quoted May Sarton in accepting the Sydney Peace Medal recently: "'You have to think like a hero, in order to act like a merely decent human being.'"
He continued: "We are objective, but we are not neutral. We are on the side of justice. Objectivity is not the same as neutrality. We are objective about the facts when it comes to reporting and not distorting facts. But we are not neutral about what kind of world we would like to see [which is] a more just world."
This publisher was, of course, Julian Assange, co-founder of WikiLeaks. Assange was arbitrarily detained on America's behalf in early December 2010 after publishing truthful but critical information about war crimes and other malfeasance in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the past decade, Assange has been isolated, tortured, denied due process, denied medical treatment, had his lawyers spied on, had his infant children targeted, been caged in Britain's notorious Belmarsh, been displayed in a glass box during trials, and been broadly smearedas someone who"hid in Ecuador's embassy to avoid Swedish sex charges."
About the latter, where to begin? Assange was granted political asylum from American persecution. Ecuador does not grant asylum for sex crimes (does any country?). There were no "Swedish charges" — there was instead a preliminary investigation that was manipulated to immobilize Assange.
Behind the scenes, it gets worse.
Late last month, Yahoo! news released a 7,500 word investigative report revealing plans at the CIA and "the highest levels" of the Trump administration in 2017 to kidnap or kill Assange while he was in Ecuador's London embassy.
Former director Mike Pompeo seemingly confirmed the report in a subsequent interview, saying that the 30 sources should all be prosecuted for speaking about classified CIA activity.
The Assange indictment does not allege anyone was harmed by his publications of classified material. Assange is charged with 17 counts under the Espionage Act — charges which would essentially criminalize investigative journalism. The charges are made under an archaic law that allows no "public interest" defense. Assange risks a potential sentence of 170 years.
The Espionage Act prosecution of a publisher is unprecedented and caused widespread pushback. Prosecutors later added emphasis to an 18th charge — conspiracy to hack. A key witness here is a convicted Icelandic fraudster who in June admitted to fabricating key accusations following a promise of immunity. On Sept. 24, this witness was jailed in Iceland amid an ongoing crime spree (per Icelandic biweekly Stundin).
The case against Assange appears to be in shambles. Earlier, the Swedish investigation was closed days after a U.N. report showed the Swedish government shopped prosecutors, manipulated evidence, disregarded exculpatory evidence, refused to question Assange, and refused to guarantee non-rendition.
Other reports have shown repeated abuse of process in Sweden and the U.K. related to Assange's imprisonment. And the embassy spying revelations now look disturbingly like a nascent field operation related to the CIA's kidnap/kill planning.
Where does this end?As Reporters Without Borders, the ACLU, and other major press freedom groups have said, the CIA report underscores the grave threat to press freedom represented by the Assange case.
The Assange indictment was issued during the Trump administration and bears some of its worst characteristics: bureaucratic volatility, vicious score-settling and a dead-eyed willingness to break norms. And the longer this continues, the more the damage and blame accrues to Trump's successor.
President Joe Biden, please intercede. Drop the charges. Free Julian Assange.
Drew Hamre lives in Golden Valley.