Earlier today, the New York Times reported that recently-fired FBI director James Comey met with President Trump alone in the Oval Office in February, and “Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.”
Trump’s comments are disturbing, yet unsurprising. He has made his war on the press a central point in both his campaign and early presidency, and has increasingly become obsessed with pursuing leak investigations. If the Trump administration attempts to jail a reporter for publishing classified information—something major newspapers do all the time—it would present a grave threat to the journalism profession and the First Amendment.
Freedom of the Press Foundation has long believed that the true danger in an administration with an avowed hatred of the press would be the prosecution of journalists under the Espionage Act. The 100-year-old statute is blatantly unconstitutional, and reporters have every right under the First Amendment to publish information from the government, even if—and especially if—the government considers such information classified. We hope, as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in response to the Times article: “The president’s remarks should not intimidate the press but inspire it."
Trump’s alleged statements to Comey also serve as a reminder of why the Justice Department’s reported plans to prosecute WikiLeaks are so dangerous. Whether you like WikiLeaks or not, prosecuting a private party for publishing classified information would be unprecedented and would undoubtedly put all other reporters at grave risk. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has a history of supporting anti-press freedom policies, refused to rule out such a prosecution of outlets like the New York Times when asked a few weeks ago about the precedent that a WikiLeaks prosecution would set. Trump’s alleged comments to Comey only bolster the idea that journalism as we know it is at risk.
We hope everyone will loudly condemn both Trump’s remarks that he wants reporters jailed, as well as the Justice Department’s planned prosecution of WikiLeaks. It’s never been more clear that they are not two separate issues, but are inextricably linked.