The authoritarian Trump administration, which relishes centralized power, indicted Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange with 17 counts under the Espionage Act for disseminating classified information received from military and diplomatic documents. Though a regular practice among journalists, prosecuting one for exposing war crimes obtained from a third-party source is the very purpose of the press. This event is similar to the gross abuse of government power that occurred under President John Adams and the Federalists upon the Founding, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Here, the First Amendment is being VIOLATED and I shall not keep quiet.
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In an unprecedented move, the Justice Department has indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on 17 charges of violating the Espionage Act for his role in publishing U.S. classified military and diplomatic documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The documents were leaked by U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. The Espionage Act of 1917 has never been used to prosecute a journalist or media outlet. The new charges come just over a month after British police forcibly removed Assange from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he took asylum in 2012. Initially the Trump administration indicted Assange on a single count of helping Manning hack a government computer, but Assange faces up to 170 additional years in prison under the new charges—10 years for each count of violating the Espionage Act. We speak with Jennifer Robinson, an attorney for Julian Assange. “It is a grave threat to press freedom and should be cause for concern for journalists and publishers everywhere,” Robinson says.
CHRISTOPHER NAWOJCZYK: This is disgusting! Journalists have long acted identical to Wikileaks by obtaining information from third-party sources to then publish for mass awareness. The United States government indicted Assange with 17 charges of violating the Espionage Act for publishing classified DoD information that revealed gross war crimes by U.S. troops.
The Espionage Act has never been used to prosecute a journalist or media outlet since its inception in 1917. Why is the federal government acting so differently than it has in times past? Because authoritarians have taken control and the deep state is firmly established. The fictional warnings of George Orwell’s 1984 have come true in the USA, and our resistant outcry against it was not strong enough. We are dealing with a flagrant, insidious group of people in the so-called “establishment.” This includes Donald Trump, his cabinet, and much of the Executive bureaucracies that act covertly with special interests behind closed doors.
This indictment against Assange is a threat to the fundamental tenets of journalism, which has a longstanding reputation of being the Fourth Estate or fourth power. Freedom of speech (and of the press) has long been a “check” to the possibility of the Legislative, Executive or Judicial branch gaining too much power and not being stopped by the other two. The People have both a fundamental right and a DUTY to exercise resistance against any regime of state power that overreaches its bounds to the extent of infringing our natural rights. The United States government is supposed to be predicated on the “consent of the governed”—why are we being so apathetic?
Thus in relation to the outrageous nature of the Trump administration’s indictment of Julian Assange—a non U.S. citizen journalist from Australia—Trump’s dictatorial and authoritative essence is similar to John Adams and the Federalists in their passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Here is a brief overview of what happened.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
The Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams
During the only four-year term of President John Adams, his Federalist Party enacted four laws abridging the speech rights of American citizens and the status of new immigrants. Despite intense opposition and an uphill battle by the Republican-minority in Congress, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts and President Adams singed them into law on July 14, 1798.
Moreover, the Acts were ludicrous because the United States had just fought a war with Great Britain over these and other tenets of freedom. The Federalists’ Acts were utter violations of the First Amendment which also offended the spirit of American conscience concerning immigration and the virtue of welcoming foreigners seeking liberty. Thus the Federalists’ reasons for passing these laws were shallow and void of principle in regards to individual liberty and freedom of expression.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress to protect national security against foreign spies or those seeking to undermine the sovereignty of the United States. A long train of events led to this egregious legislation by Congress, starting with the innocent Jay Treaty under George Washington.
Potential War with France
In 1794, President Washington negotiated the Jay Treaty with England to resolve unsettled differences of commerce, navigation, and gain amity with its former sovereign since the War for Independence. France, being at odds with England due to its own national conflicts, frowned upon this diplomatic agreement. When John Adams won the election in 1796, he sent diplomats to France to foster peace and diplomacy.
However, the new French leaders who sprung to power after its own internal affair, the French Revolution, were reluctant to welcome the Americans with open arms. France assigned three unnamed representatives known as X, Y and Z to meet covertly with the U.S. diplomats (aka. “the XYZ affair”). Mr. X made bribes for $10,000 to begin negotiations. When the Americans refused, they were threatened with “the power and violence of France.” The response by many Federalists was to quickly declare war on France. President Adams, however, declined and instead proposed making preparations for war using a land tax to pay for them.
Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party of Opposition
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson’s opposing party, the Republicans (aka. Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonians), were furious with the Federalists’ adamant “war fever.” Alexander Hamilton led the Federalists, and a heated feud persisted between the two men since the inception of the Constitution. Federalists wanted a strong and secure government that ensured trade, commerce and capital enterprise among prosperous citizens. Though nothing is inherently wrong with this sentiment, it lacks the fundamental virtue of upholding principles of individual liberty and self-government without compromise.
Thus Hamilton’s Federalists can be likened to the pro-capitalist, national security agenda of today’s GOP Republicans. Modern Republicans stand for free market and national defense, but often go to extremes by violating privacy in exchange for security, and waging global wars for special interests and empire domination.
In contrast, Jefferson’s Republican Party cared more for the tenets of individual liberty and decentralized, limited government. They spoke more for the common working person, the poor, and newly arrived immigrants. Although Democratic-Republicans were the forerunner of today’s Democratic Party, both Republicans and Democrats of today share little in common with the two original parties of Jefferson and Hamilton. Though today’s Democrats and Republicans stand for some original qualities of constitutional law, both are incomplete—with serious violations on natural rights in one way or another.
Furthermore, neither France nor the United States ever declared war, but in preparation of such conflict President Adams proposed DRACONIAN laws that utterly violated the First Amendment to the Constitution, to say the least. In wake of these events, the Federalists accused Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans of being a traitorous “French Party.” A Federalist newspaper wrote, “He that is not for us, is against us,” which unsurprisingly sounds similar to George W. Bush’s statement during the Iraq War, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Thus Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was a preposterous waste of American lives, money, and national reputation—a war sold to the public on LIES.
Breakdown of the Alien and Sedition Acts
In an attempt to make the United States more safe and also weaken Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, the Federalist-held Congress passed four laws that severely violated the rights of American people. Former President Washington backed the Federalists’ passing of these acts, which is one of the few instances where I frown on George Washington.
(1) The Naturalization Act: extended the time immigrants had to live in the United States before becoming citizens from five to fourteen years. The federal government never enforced this law during the four years of its enactment, but used would have impeded the growth of Jefferson’s party which attracted the sentiment of immigrants.
(2) The Alien Enemies Act: on the condition that war is declared, all male citizens of an enemy nation could be arrested, detained and deported. If used, this Act could have expelled the 25,000 French citizens living in the United States. Like the Naturalization Act and due to war not being declared, this Act was neither used.
(3) The Alien Friends Act: authorized the president to deport any non-citizen for allegations of plotting against the U.S. government whether in wartime or peacetime. The law was limited to two years, and though never used it could have resulted in the mass expulsion of newly arrived immigrants who never gained citizenship before fourteen years.
(4) The Sedition Act: directly targeted those who spoke contemptuous words against the government and its decisions. This law deliberately attacked those of Thomas Jefferson’s party who held strong objections to the Federalists. Essentially, “sedition” means speech or conduct that incites others to rebel against lawful authority of the state or monarch.
English common law practiced the doctrine of “seditious libel” which prohibited almost any criticism of the king or his officials. The tradition held that any spoken or written words that found defect with His Majesty’s government sabotaged the respect of the people for his authority. Basically, “rebel-rousing” might instigate mass distain for authority among British subjects, thus causing a revolt.
First, the U.S. Sedition Act outlawed any conspiracies “to oppose any measure or measures of the government.” The Act made it a crime to express “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the Congress or the president. Unsurprisingly, the Act did not make the vice-president immune from prosecution—who happened to be Jefferson—only Congress and the president.
Thus additional language prohibited any language or spoken words that had “bad intent” to “defame” the government or instigate the people to develop “hatred” toward it. The speech restrictions of the Sedition Act were more explicitly defined than that of the seditious libel doctrine of English common law. Nonetheless they were strong enough to punish anyone who contemptuously spoke out against the government. If this is not a violation of free speech in the First Amendment, then I don’t know what is.
The Sedition Act’s ‘Truth’ Defense
Unlike English common law, the Sedition Act allowed for “the truth of the matter” to be a defense, and let the jury decide if a defendant had “bad intent.” Penalties ranged from six months to five years depending on violations of certain provisions, and a fine of up to $5,000 (more than $100,000 of today’s currency).
Alleged Reasons for the Alien and Sedition Acts
Rumors amounted of a French invasion and the threat of being intercepted by French spies. Consequently, President Adams declared that adverse foreign influence within the United States was dangerous and needed to be “exterminated.” Not only was there fear of foreign spies but also the possibility of domestic allegiance to France among Americans. Jefferson’s Republicans were opposed to the Federalists’ warmongering sentiment—similar to the Trump administration’s attitude toward foreign intervention. Trump himself, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton have an aggressive sentiment of American exceptionalism.
The Jeffersonians supported in part the French Revolution’s cause. They saw it as a revolt against tyrannical monarchy to restore democracy and rights among the people of France. Nonetheless, John Adams and the Federalists detested the French Revolution as a brutish, anarchical regime. Being strong upholders of centralized government power, they saw it as a cause unworthy of support. These differences between Federalists and anti-Federalists are similar to the opposing views among Democrats and Republicans of today. That said, from an objectivist approach, one is right and the other is wrong.
There is indeed an ideal and just way to govern a nation. Our Constitution was meant “for a moral and religious people” in the words of John Adams himself. Nevertheless, his policies surely contradicted such a statement because freedom of speech (the First Amendment) exists to protect unpopular, offensive speech. Moral and religious or not, we are imperfect humans with differing morals, ethics, and cultural views. The very notion of explicitly protecting expression exists because not everyone is going to like what another thinks or says. This includes the government’s opinion of a protesting critic. Thus, freedom of speech and “of the press” safeguards us from the government and not a private entity.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Apparently, to Adams and the Federalists the Alien and Sedition Acts did not violate the First Amendment, which reads:
Constitution of United States of America 1789 (rev. 1992)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
A simple reading of this text is comprehendible to the average person. To claim that the First Amendment is not being abridged amid laws that thwart the free exercise of speech is insidious. Imposing any government law that limits the press or personal expression for any reason runs counter to the reason the First Amendment was enacted—to protect the People from their government! However, the Adams administration thought otherwise.
The Alien and Sedition Acts provoked heated debates in state legislatures between Federalists and Republicans over freedom of speech and the press. James Madison wrote in a resolution for the Virginia legislature that the Sedition Act undermined the “right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people.” In contrast, legislators in Federalist-dominated Massachusetts responded that a sedition law was “wise and necessary” to thwart secret attacks by foreign or domestic enemies.
The Federalists in Congress promoted an Old English common law version of free speech that was much weaker. This approach did not protect people from making false or malicious statements against the government, but only limited the censoring of speech made beforehand that did not spark offense and controversy.
Republican John Nichols of Virginia argued against this Federalist approach by asserting that citizens need a free and accessible ability to learn facts and knowledge about their government leaders in order to elect and judge them while serving in office. He questioned why government ought have the power to punish citizens and the press over what they say while informing the voters.
This lengthy debate came to a close in 1800 when the people elected Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States, with a Republican-majority in Congress. He immediately repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts and stated in his inaugural address a revised definition of free speech, that Americans have the right “to think freely and to speak and write what they think.”
How the Alien and Sedition Acts Relate to the Trump Administration’s Handling of Assange
Since the United States Constitution was ratified over 220 years ago, our nation has struggled against internal tyrants threatening the very ideology that founded our country. The Bill of Rights are explicit enough to cover some fundamental natural rights based on the principles of individuality, personal sovereignty, private property, privacy, and presumption of innocence.
However, George Washington said “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” He as alluding to the fact that imperfect people make up government, and although we have checks and balances in our constitutional republic, corrupt people will always exist in public office who we must watch out for. It is the duty of the people to vigilantly guard their liberty by exercising their rights and rising up to oppose anyone that threatens them.
The Trump administration is treating Julian Assange like a sworn member of an Executive cabinet who violated his oath to the Constitution and the laws of a federal agency (i.e. FBI, CIA, etc.). Assange is neither a U.S. citizen nor someone who works directly for the U.S. government. He is a journalist who likely received the classified information from an undisclosed source in the federal bureaucracy, Russian operatives, or both. Hence, journalists have always received such sensitive knowledge, and published it for public intelligence. THIS IS THE PURPOSE OF THE PRESS and FREEDOM OF SPEECH: to protect the citizenry’s right to expose corruption and evil, and bring it to the light of day.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz linked Assange’s indictment with the atrocities of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and highlighted the Trump administration’s imitation of the Nixon administration who once chose not to indict The New York Times; nevertheless, today’s Justice Department did.