What happened at The Guardian could happen here

Chief_Justice_Charles_Evans_Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes

This commentary was first published at The Huffington Post.

As you have no doubt already heard, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, wrote on Monday that British security agents recently visited the newspaper’s headquarters and insisted that hard drives containing leaked documents from Edward Snowden be smashed and destroyed in their presence. The incident, Rusbridger said, took place after a “very senior government official” demanded that the materials either be returned or disposed of.

Rusbridger’s report followed the nearly nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Greenwald has written the bulk of The Guardian’s articles about the Snowden documents, and Miranda had been visiting filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has worked extensively with Snowden and Greenwald, in Berlin.

We are already being told that such thuggery couldn’t happen in the United States because of our constitutional protections for freedom of the press. For instance, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review writes, “Prior restraint is the nuclear option in government relations with the press and unfortunately, the British don’t have a First Amendment.”

But in fact, there is nothing to stop the U.S. government from censoring the media with regard to revelations such as those contained in the Snowden files — nothing, that is, except longstanding tradition. And respect for that tradition is melting away, as I argued recently in this space.

The case for censorship, ironically, was made in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely limited the circumstances under which the government could censor. The decision, Near v. Minnesota (1931), was a great victory for the press, as the ruling held that Jay Near could not be prohibited from resuming publication of his scandal sheet, which had been shut down by state authorities (of course, he could be sued for libel after the fact).

What’s relevant here is how Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes described the limited circumstances under which the government could engage in prior restraint:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops. On similar grounds, the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications. The security of the community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow by force of orderly government.

The text I’ve bolded means that the government may, in fact, engage in censorship if by so doing it would prevent a breach of national security so grave that it could be likened to the examples cited by Hughes. That’s what the Nixon administration relied on in seeking to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The Supreme Court, in allowing publication of the Pentagon Papers to resume (New York Times Co. v. United States), wrestled extensively with Near v. Minnesota, and ultimately decided that revealing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War did not amount to the sort of immediate, serious breach of national security that Hughes envisioned.

But who knows what the court would say if the Obama administration took similar action against The Washington Post, which has published several important reports based on the Snowden documents — including last week’s Barton Gellman bombshell that the National Security Agency had violated privacy protections thousands of times?

Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the Snowden documents pertain to ongoing operations, which cuts in favor of censorship. Cutting against it, of course, is that there’s a strong public-interest case to be made in favor of publication, given the long-overdue national debate that Snowden’s revelations have ignited.

The bottom line, though, is that there is no constitutional ban that would prevent the White House from seeking to stop publication of the Snowden documents — even if U.S. officials are unlike to engage in the sort of theatrics that reportedly took place in The Guardian’s basement.

(Disclosure: I wrote a weekly online column for The Guardian from 2007 to 2011.)

Edward Snowden and the peril facing journalism

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The editors of The New York Times appear to have forgotten an important principle: the First Amendment is for all of us, and does not grant any special privileges to the institutional press. Thus if Edward Snowden is prosecuted for leaking classified documents about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs, the news organizations that published those documents could face criminal charges as well.

The possibility that journalists could be in legal jeopardy for doing their jobs seems not to have occurred to whoever wrote an editorial in today’s Times, which argues that Snowden should be prepared to pay the price for civil disobedience by way of his leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Though the editorial dismisses the absurd notion that Snowden has committed treason, it concludes with this observation, which comes across as semi-sympathetic but contains toxic implications: “Mr. Snowden may well be going to jail for exposing practices that should never have been secret in the first place.”

In fact, if Snowden, as seems likely, is charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, there is nothing to stop the government from going after The Washington Post as well — or The Guardian, if someone would like to seek extradition of Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story, and his editor, Alan Rusbridger.

American journalists in these situations operate on the premise that they are free to publish information even if the source or sources who gave it to them violated the law in obtaining it. That’s largely true — First Amendment protections against censorship are extraordinarily high. The corollary, though, is that there may be consequences to be paid post-publication.

The best-known example is the Pentagon Papers, a case that should be near and dear to the hearts of Times editors. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Times and the Post could not be prevented from publishing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

But as civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in a 2006 article for The Boston Phoenix, five of the nine justices essentially invited the government to file charges against the Times and the Post after publication — and the Nixon administration was preparing to do just that before it got caught up in the burgeoning Watergate scandal.

Silverglate was concerned that the Times faced possible charges under the Espionage Act for revealing the existence of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. Even though the program illegally circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, then-president George W. Bush called the Times’ reporting “a shameful act” — and Gabriel Schoenfeld, writing in Commentary, was just one on the neocon right who argued that the Times should be prosecuted.

More recently, the Times published many of the WikiLeaks documents exposed by Bradley Manning, who is now on trial and who may face a life sentence. And in 2010 John Cook posted a short piece in Gawker making the commonsense observation that the Times potential liability was precisely the same as that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had been targeted by Attorney General Eric Holder. Cook wrote:

So if it was a crime when Assange obtained the database, why wasn’t it a crime when the Times did? The Espionage Act makes no distinctions when it comes to sources of defense information: It’s a crime to “obtain [it] from any person, or from any source whatever.” Assange got it from Manning, the Times got it from the Guardian; both transactions are equally criminal under the act.

More than a year ago, I argued that President Barack Obama was engaged in a “war on journalism” stemming from his administration’s obsession with rooting out leakers. Recently we learned that the Justice Department had spied on the Associated Press and on Fox News reporter James Rosen, and had even gotten a judge to sign a search warrant identifying Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator. Now U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is calling for journalists to be prosecuted for publishing the NSA documents leaked by Snowden.

This is a moment of great peril for journalism. With 56 percent of Americans saying they don’t mind if the government monitors their phone records, public opinion is hardly on the side of whistleblowers and the news organizations that work with them.

Whether we approve of everything Edward Snowden did or not, The New York Times and others in our craft ought to show more solidarity. If he is in trouble, so are all of us.

A first-rate overview of journalism’s fate

The week’s best listen is NPR’s “On the Media,” which weighs in with a special program on the future of the newspaper business. At least that’s what they call it, but the show is really broader than that, hitting all the right themes on the fate of professional journalism.

Among the topics: whether the government should play a role in saving the news business; whether newspapers should charge for online content (a tired topic brought to life by a smart interview with one of my über-bosses, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger); a conversation with James Fallows of the Atlantic about his recent article on Google’s news initiatives; and whether a renewed focus on local news will help bolster newspapers’ bottom lines.

Grab the MP3 and listen. It’s as good an overview as I’ve come across in recent months.