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..
So wrote the Founding Fathers in the 1st Amendment of the US constitution,. ratified in 1791. In the 200-odd years since, the words have become part of the backbone of American democracy, hallowed and revered by journalists and citizens alike. As if the original copy of the document on display in the National Archives wasn’t enough, the words are also plastered on the elevation of Pennsylvania Avenue’s Newseum, slap bang between the White House and the Capitol. You would think they’d be hard to forget.
Alas, no. Last week a military judge found Private Bradley Manning guilty under the Espionage Act; his crime was to leak secret dossiers which detailed the US army’s abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite being acquitted of the more serious (if absurd) charge of aiding the enemy, Manning’s various convictions mean he now faces as many as 136 years in prison.
Quite how these convictions are justified is unclear. He had already pleaded guilty to the actual deed of leaking military secrets, which is rightfully a criminal act. But in leaking the documents to The New York Times he was actually using the right his own army – of which he was a part – was apparently fighting to instil in some of the harshest places in the world. He was, surely, setting an example.
It is also rather undemocratic to criminalise someone who holds an elected government to account. We are seeing this happen again to Edward Snowden, who is himself wanted under Espionage Act (seemingly the current control method of choice in America). Although it is easier to feel sympathy for Snowden because he uncovered a kind of government excess more people care about and has perfected the look of a dorky, innocent do-gooder, it is important to remember that he and Manning did the same thing: what they, and many others, thought was right. Don’t send them to jail for believing in their own constitution. Freedom of speech demands a higher level of respect than that.