Threat to Press Freedom: Espionage Act Under Fire

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Reforming the Espionage Act: A Call for Transparency and Protections for Whistleblowers

Coalition Urges Congress to Allow Floor Vote on Amendment

Amidst growing concerns about the government’s misuse of the Espionage Act to suppress freedom of the press and protect whistleblowers, a coalition of 19 civil liberty, press freedom, and whistleblower protection groups has written to the Rules Committee of the House of Representatives. They are demanding a floor vote on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2025.

The amendment, proposed by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), seeks to modernize the Espionage Act to align with contemporary First Amendment jurisprudence and prevent its abuse against legitimate journalism and whistleblowing.

Threat to Press Freedom: Espionage Act Under Fire

Concerns over Broad Interpretation

The coalition argues that the Espionage Act, enacted during World War I, has been inappropriately used to prosecute publishers, journalists, their sources, and whistle blowers, due to its overly broad and vague definition of “national defense information.”

“The Espionage Act criminalizes the unauthorized disclosure of ‘national defense information,’ a term the statute leaves undefined. This law has been used to threaten and prosecute both media outlets that publish government secrets, as well as their sources,” the groups wrote in their letter.

Proposed Amendments

Amendment 759, introduced by Rep. Tlaib, seeks to prevent these abuses by:

  1. Tightening the language of the two sections of the Espionage Act that have been used to target journalists and whistleblowers.
  2. Limiting these provisions to government employees with a responsibility to protect classified information or foreign agents.
  3. Requiring national defense information to be properly classified.
  4. Requiring the government to prove the defendant acted with the specific intent to harm the United States or help a foreign adversary.
  5. Allowing defendants to testify about the reason behind their disclosures.
  6. Establishing an affirmative public interest defense.

First Amendment Implications

The coalition emphasizes that the current state of the Espionage Act poses a significant threat to First Amendment rights, as it allows the government to arbitrarily prosecute news publishers and whistle blowers. By modernizing the act, Amendment 759 would help ensure the protection of freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.

Notable Cases and Disturbing Trends

The groups point to the incarceration of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as an example of the government’s excessive use of the Espionage Act against public interest journalism. Assange is currently in prison in the United Kingdom, facing extradition to the United States on espionage charges for publishing classified U.S. military documents leaked to him by whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

In addition to Amendment 759, there have been other congressional efforts to reform the Espionage Act, including the Espionage Act Reform Act introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) in 2022.

Call to Action

The coalition urges the House Rules Committee to allow a floor vote on Amendment 759. They argue that this would allow for a meaningful debate on the important issues of free speech and whistleblower protection, and would bring the Espionage Act in line with contemporary democratic principles.