Was the Law Always This Judgmental?

It’s been a rough week or so for freedoms of all kinds. Top of mind is the list of states that have decided they have the right to police women’s bodies. As of this writing, eight states have passed bills to place extreme limitations on abortions. Shout out to Illinois where I live for doing exactly the opposite.

Let me be clear. I’m not waving the flag like, yay for abortions. No. I’d prefer it if women were 100% responsible, fail proof and utterly unbothered by rapists and other sexual predation that might result in an unwanted pregnancy. But that’s not the world we live in is it? Perfection doesn’t exist. Therefore, I take issue with anyone essentially saying, “Oh, you’re going to have this baby.” Brass tacks? That’s a lot of MF nerve. 

I’d also add the 17 new charges against Wikileaks leader Julian Assange as another notable, borderline abuse of political power. Again, to be clear, I’m not some anti-government radical suggesting that legislators not take an interest in promoting a high standard of behavior for the citizenry. I’m also not commenting on whether Assange is right or wrong. My head tilt/shaking disquiet is focused on the current political administration’s efforts to take away that which has always been someone else’s. And if not always, certainly it’s been long enough for any sign of regression to seem like a particular hard and vicious slap in the face – with a closed fist. 

Assange has been indicted et al for WikiLeaks’ publication of secret documents leaked by former Army Intelligence Analyst Chelsea Manning. But these 17 new charges have many journalists concerned about what seems to be “a grave escalation.

“It’s not criminal to encourage someone to leak classified information to you as a journalist — that’s called news gathering, and there are First Amendment protections for news gathering,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a lawyer who frequently represents media organizations like CNN in a New York Times piece discussing journalists reaction to the charges. “The ramifications of this are so potentially dangerous and serious for the ability of journalists to gather and disseminate information that the American people have a right to know.”

By criminalizing the source/fact gathering piece of the reporting process, federal prosecutors are essentially putting verbal handcuffs on the media, or at least the threat of a rather tight muzzle. Some reporters publish classified information. That’s part of the job. They didn’t take an oath not to disclose that information like a government official. 

“The Espionage Act doesn’t make any distinction between journalists and nonjournalists,” said Matthew Miller, in the NYT article. Miller served as the Justice Department’s chief spokesman under Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr.He’sreferring to the law that Mr. Assange is accused of violating. “If you can charge Julian Assange under the law with publishing classified information, there is nothing under the law that prevents the Justice Department from charging a journalist.”

I keep thinking about the phrase “protection under the law.” I always associated it with a kind of comfort. The word protection inspires thoughts of defense, someone standing between you and an unexpected foe. But when laws become this judgmental how can we distinguish who is the foe and who is the protector?

I don’t report hard news. I never have. But I wholeheartedly support my scoop chasing sisters and brothers in the trenches who bring us the tough stories that shine light in uncomfortable places. The fact that Justice Department officials are attempting to assuage the press’ concerns by distinguishing Assange from a more credible journalist is neither here nor there. There’s way too much subjectivity in this picture for that to provide much comfort. 

Suggesting that Assange’s efforts to actually help Manning get illegal documents is the same as aiding and abetting a criminal act makes my neck itch too. What qualifies as help in this question of news gathering and the public’s right to know? A strong suggestion? Two suggestions? Three? Holding the door so your source can rush through it with a file folder stamped classified? It’s a slippery slope, and as we’ve see with this abortion business, once you open a door, a whole lot of people you weren’t expecting will attempt to run through it. 

The past three years have shocked me speechless more times than I can count. Me being me I never stay speechless for long. But it’s both baffling and terribly revealing how easy it is for a society to move backwards in critical, even as so many areas are advancing at lightning speed.

For instance, we’re currently battling to figure out where the lines between advertising and data privacy should reasonably cross. This is a new battle because we’ve ever dealt with this level of technological interaction before, and that’s fine. You don’t have to be a teenager to experience growing pains. Industries go through it all the time. It’s a symptom of modern life. 

But call me naïve, I never thought I’d have to worry about journalists becoming war criminals for doing their jobs. Just as I never thought I’d have to worry that women in the U.S. would have their right – rights they fought for long hard years to get – to decide what to do and not do with their bodies taken away.

It just goes to show: You can never get too comfortable. You can never take your eye off the ball. You never know when a sudden wrong political move might prompt that ball to hit you right in the face. 

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