Strong-arming the First Amendment

Plus activist judges and fat versus gay
By EDITORIAL  |  December 15, 2010

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HYPOCRISY: Does Obama appreciate the irony of calling for the release of Noebl winner Liu Xiaobo (left) while his attorney general seeks a way to lock up WikiLeak's Julian Assange (left)?

President Barack Obama is a bright guy. In fact, he's a former constitutional-law professor. Does he appreciate the irony of calling upon China to release imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while his attorney general seeks a way to lock up WikiLeaks maestro Julian Assange?

Liu, a Chinese civil-rights activist, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for what officials in his country say is "inciting subversion of state power. "

That sounds a lot like Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and other WikiLeaks critics talking about Assange.

The excitable and often overwrought Lieberman not only wants to see Assange, already jailed in England while awaiting extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual misconduct, thrown in prison here. For good measure, Lieberman also wants the New York Times prosecuted for espionage, for publishing stories based on secret documents obtained by WikiLeaks.

This is trash talk and guttersnipe grandstanding.

In a December 6 memo, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) suggested that going after Assange would be unprecedented; secrecy laws bind only federal employees and government contractors. Assange is accused of many things, but being on Uncle Sam's payroll is not one of them. "Leaks of classified information to the press," CRS points out, "have only rarely been punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it."

In the next sentence CRS explains something you would think would be obvious to any elected official: "There may be First-Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship."

Behind the silky qualifications and prudent prose of the CRS there is a crystal clear message: as things now stand, to screw with Assange or WikiLeaks or the New York Times is to screw with the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, Washington need not violate the letter of constitutional law in its efforts (so far unsuccessful) to muzzle WikiLeaks. There is always good, old-fashioned coercion, which mocks the spirit.

Lieberman has strong-armed the multi-national, corporate giants that provided WikiLeaks with technical support (Amazon) and processed donations (MasterCard, PayPal) into severing ties. He's not the one who knows how to play the coercion game. China did it very effectively when it convinced 19 nations, including Egypt (the world's largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid) and Afghanistan (aren't American soldiers dying over there?), to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring Liu.

Liu, in prison, of course could not attend. And his wife was prevented from doing so. In fact, for good measure, she was placed under house arrest the day the prize was announced.

WikiLeaks is also banned in China, which makes no bones about censoring the internet.

Ironist or not, President Obama would do well to remember that freedom of speech and freedom of the press — not in spite of being sometimes inconvenient, but because they are often inconvenient — are just two of the things that make the United States a very different place from the Middle Kingdom.

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