JSchool to Obama: Don’t Prosecute WikiLeaks

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A good chunk of the Columbia JSchool faculty has signed a letter to Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder claiming that the recent publication of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks is “protected by the First Amendment.” The faculty looks back a few decades and points out that “as a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.” Letter after the jump.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Attorney General Eric Holder
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

December 13, 2010

Dear Mr. President and General Holder:
As faculty members and officers of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, we are concerned by recent reports that the Department of Justice is considering criminal charges against Julian Assange or others associated with Wikileaks.

Journalists have a responsibility to exercise careful news judgment when classified documents are involved, including assessing whether a document is legitimately confidential and whether there may be harm from its publication.

But while we hold varying opinions of Wikileaks’ methods and decisions, we all believe that in publishing diplomatic cables Wikileaks is engaging in journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment. Any prosecution of Wikileaks’ staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity.

As a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.

The U.S. and the First Amendment continue to set a world standard for freedom of the press, encouraging journalists in many nations to take significant risks on behalf of transparency. Prosecution in the Wikileaks case would greatly damage American standing in free-press debates worldwide and would dishearten those journalists looking to this nation for inspiration.

We urge you to pursue a course of prudent restraint in the Wikileaks matter.
Please note this letter reflects our individual views, not a position of Columbia University or the Journalism School.


Emily Bell, Professor of Professional Practice; Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism

Helen Benedict, Professor

Sheila Coronel, Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative;
Director, Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism

June Cross, Associate Professor of Journalism

John Dinges, Godfrey Lowell Cabot Professor of Journalism

Joshua Friedman, Director, Maria Moors Cabot Prize for Journalism in the Americas

Todd Gitlin, Professor; Chair, Ph.D. Program

Ari Goldman, Professor

LynNell Hancock, Professor; Director, Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship

Marguerite Holloway, Assistant Professor; Director, Science and Environmental Journalism

David Klatell, Professor of Professional Practice; Chair, International Studies

Nicolas Lemann, Dean; Henry R. Luce Professor

Dale Maharidge, Associate Professor

Arlene Morgan, Associate Dean, Prizes and Programs

Victor S. Navasky, George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism; Director,
Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism

Michael Schudson, Professor

Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

Alisa Solomon, Associate Professor; Director, Arts Concentration, M.A. Program
Paula Span, Adjunct Professor

Duy Linh Tu, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice; Coordinator, Digital Media Program

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  1. honestly  

    Does anyone even care what's going on in Journalism (the building) anymore? It's pretty clear all the school does nowadays is provide a tired reaction to the actual innovators in the hopes that someone will actually still believe in their relevance.

    • umm

      yes and no. Do people care about the publication of traditional media and reporting models? probably not because our modernity is all but obliterating the way we get "stuff". Do the principles of proper journalism and the history of truth and spin matter? yes, probably more than ever given what's happened in the last century or two. how do you manage your the inputs to your beliefs and perceptions in the world? is it is a world that gives you too much of the same view, not enough of the different stuff, and far too little of the most intriguing and novel?

  2. The name  

    "Julian Assange" makes me think of "Pascal Sauvage," a character from the ever-hilarious film, Johnny English (starring Rowan Atkinson). Sauvage is an evil mastermind. Coincidence??? I think not.

  3. Punish Assange

    The government isn't even going after reporters for reporting on Wikileaks. What a sanctimonious defense of naked self-interest. Wikileaks is a bonanza for media careerists, who don't care about the actual harm caused by Wikileaks except how it can be used to further themselves.

  4. Anonymous  

    Yay for the JSchool, press freedom, and transparency in government and diplomatic affairs!

  5. Anonymous  

    That's definitely Eliza Schapiro's dad right there....

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