CFPHR Letter to U.S. Government Officials Regarding Free Expression in the Wake of the Wikileaks Controversy
December 22, 2010
An Open Letter to U.S. Government Officials
Regarding Free Expression in the Wake of
December 22, 2010
Dear Public Officials:
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from legal and free speechexperts about the possible application of the Espionage Act to the recent publication of secret documents by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, as well as to traditional mediaoutlets, Internet companies, and others who have also distributed and reported on thatinformation. All seven witnesses cautioned against attempts to suppress free speech andcriticized the overwhelming secrecy that permeates the United States government. Wewrite to echo these concerns and applaud those who have spoken out against attempts tocensor the Internet.
We urge caution against any legislation that could weaken theprinciples of free expression vital to a democratic society or hamper onlinefreedoms.
Unfortunately, some government officials have already attacked newspapers’ rights toreport on the releases by Wikileaks. Other government actors have made official andunofficial statements casting doubt on the right of government employees and others todownload, read, or even discuss documents published by Wikileaks or news reportingbased on those documents. Others have rashly proposed legislation that could limit thefree speech of legitimate news reporting agencies well beyond Wikileaks. These actions have created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among the generalpublic, leading them to question their rights with regard to the documents posted byWikileaks.
As you continue to discuss these critically important issues, we urge youto do so in a way that respects the constitutional rights of publishers and the publicthat have been recognized by the Supreme Court.
• Publishers have a First Amendment right to print truthful political informationfree of prior restraint, as established in New York Times v. United States
• Publishers are strongly protected by the First Amendment against liability for publishing truthful political information that is lawfully obtained, even if theoriginal disclosure of that information to the publisher was unlawful, under Bartnicki v. Vopper
• Internet users have a First Amendment right to receive information, as repeatedlyendorsed by a series of Supreme Court cases, including Stanley v. Georgia
• The public has a First Amendment right to voice opinions about governmentactivities. This is core political speech, which receives the highest protectionunder the Constitution. It will be especially critical for members of Congress to keep these rights in mind as they consider any future legislation that may impact freedom of expression.
In a freecountry, the government cannot and does not have unlimited power to determinewhat publishers can publish and what the public can read.
As the robust publicdebate about Wikileaks continues, please make sure that it includes the rights of allinvolved.
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Civil Liberties Union
American Library Association
Arizona First Amendment Coalition
Association of Research Libraries
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Bob Barr, Former Congressman and Chairman, Liberty Guard, Inc.
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for Digital Democracy
Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights
Communication Is Your Right!
Courage to Resist
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Feminists for Free Expression
First Amendment Coalition
Government Accountability Project
Muslimah Writers Alliance
National Coalition Against Censorship
New America Foundation
New Media Rights
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Progressive Librarians Guild
Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University