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The First Amendment Odyssey of Julian Assange

An icon of whistleblower journalism tastes freedom.

The smell of fresh Australian air in Julian Assange’s nostrils is a liberty neither he nor most of the rest of the world thought would ever be afforded a man who so tenaciously defied the planet’s strongest superpower. Credited with having exposed US military actions through the publication of documents leaked by whistleblower Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, Assange has endured a long ordeal. So has the First Amendment.

The Assange Odyssey

For 14 years, various governments have pursued the harried Assange as retribution for whistleblower journalism alleged by the United States to have been a conspiracy to disclose classified national defense documents. Both Manning and Assange have claimed that the former’s identity was unknown to the WikiLeaks founder at the time of the document transfer.

Sweden issued an arrest warrant for Assange in November 2011 for sexual assault charges, prompting him to jump bail and seek asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he holed up for nearly seven years. His odyssey continued when friction with his hosts led to his arrest and transfer to Britain’s infamous HM Prison Belmarsh in April 2019. Belmarsh (aka Hellmarsh, notorious for the harsh treatment of prisoners) is home to many violent serial killers, terrorists, and rapists.

This week, a bargain with the United States reduced the original 18 criminal counts of conspiracy to a single guilty plea under the US Espionage Act for conspiring to obtain and disclose classified government documents. In exchange for his plea, Assange received credit for time served in Belmarsh and was immediately released to his native Australia, where his wife and two sons anxiously await him. Assange did not travel to the United States for sentencing, instead appearing before a US judge in the Northern Mariana Islands.

A Free Speech Battle

It is a relief to many who view Assange as a free-speech icon that he will not rot in prison. Yet after seven years of isolation in a London embassy and then five more in a London prison (mostly in solitary confinement), the 52-year-old is enduring health struggles. He has, arguably, already rotted.

Assange had no choice but to accept this plea: It was a bird-in-hand for him and a face-saver for the US government and Biden administration. Had he rejected the deal, he would have embraced a dice roll before a judge or jury, where he may have been convicted: He is now on his way home.

Italy Daily Life 2024MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 11: A banner is displayed in front of the Milan municipality building against the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States and to support honorary citizenship on March 11, 2024 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

(Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

It might be that the victories for both sides of this battle have been Pyrrhic. Assange succeeded in exposing US lies and perfidy, resisted extradition to the United States, and controlled many aspects of his ordeal, but he did not avoid prison or familial separation. The US government may have secured a conviction, but the mighty American giant was resisted by a single Australian who kept slipping away like a 21st-century Houdini.

In the end, Assange was released due to a confluence of pressures. A UK court ruling in May paved the way for him to interpose the US Constitution’s First Amendment protections as defense, which threatened a dangerous precedent for the federal government. The Biden administration has long signaled a desire to close the matter under strong and persistent pressure from Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Some have suggested the November election also hung over the deal.

Free speech and journalistic integrity may have suffered more than Assange. Open political and religious speech are the foundations of the First Amendment. The international witch hunt for a young hacker who pioneered using the internet against those in power chills critical journalism, especially for those working on national security issues. Government officials counter that recklessly releasing information places foreign agents and US military personnel at risk.

The Assange saga held a mirror up to a mainstream media that has co-opted its journalistic integrity to curry favor with the powerful. Where was the call from the journalism community to protect Assange from prosecution? Where was the press of the Watergate and Vietnam eras?

Hero or Rogue?

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been a consistent supporter of Assange. Following news of the plea deal, Kennedy called for a monument to be erected to celebrate Assange and Edward Snowden “as a civics lesson to the American public about the importance of free speech.” Kennedy focused on the importance of Assange’s efforts for the free distribution of information:

“A transparent government is the essence of democracy. That’s what Julian Assange did for us,” he said, noting that the government will “constantly try to increase its power by reducing transparency.” He continued:

“One of the things that’s happened with the press is that they no longer do that job. They’ve become propagandists for government, rather than speaking truth to power. They’ve become stenographers and propagandists for government.

“We saw this during COVID. We saw it during the Iraq War. It almost always is a bad idea for the press to keep the government secrets.”

The lengthy ordeal of Assange’s defiance has extended through several presidential administrations and various dramatic chapters of near-capture and clever evasion. Was Assange a purposeful pioneer with a digital pen or a dangerous troublemaker with no loyalty? The answer to that question depends on whether one believes governments should conceal their machinations from the public in the interest of the common good, or be held liable for their every action.

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