"Journalism After Snowden" Panel Event

Introductory Remarks

January 30, 2014 

Good evening.

If you’re interested and care about the US Constitution and freedom of speech and press protected by the First Amendment, or if you care about the role of journalism and the press in informing the public about important public issues, or if you care about the roles and rights of leakers of government classified information, or the level of information the public needs to exercise our responsibilities of self-government in a democracy, or the role of the state in keeping its citizens safe and functioning effectively, or in the perplexing problems of working out a global system of free expression in a new world defined by a truly global communications system and nations with vastly different views about freedom of speech and press, if any or all of this interests you then tonight is your night.

We can look forward to hearing from distinguished leaders of some of the most important press institutions in the world which have had direct recent firsthand experience in these issues, and in Cass Sunstein, one of the key figures in the current surveillance debate, who also possesses one of the finest legal minds of my generation, and who has been a friend and colleague for many years.

The questions to be discussed tonight are profound. Among them is this one in particular: in the United States we have worked out over the past half century through major Supreme Court decisions led by the Pentagon Papers case in 1974, through legislation and through custom and behavior, by the government and the press, a workable – if unique and somewhat unruly – system. It goes something like this. There is no official secrets regime in this country, as there is, for example, in Britain. The government has full constitutional freedom to classify information as it wishes. For its part the press may receive classified information from government employees who are disposed to hand over classified documents. Moreover, subject to a variety of legal subtleties and nuances, the press may publish those classified documents with constitutional protection. The leaker, on the other hand, may be prosecuted with little or no First Amendment protection, the only question being how vigorously the government will track down and prosecute the leaker. In practice over the years not many leakers have suffered that fate. Also by custom the press will typically discuss what has been in its possession with the government and make a careful judgment about what to publish and what would be too harmful to publish, and the government in turn does not try to push the legal interpretations that might support a breach of the First Amendment protections of the press.

Every nation much reach some sort of balance and accommodation of these competing interests. And arguably up to now this has worked well in the United States. But what happens now, should the balance be struck in the same way, in a world in which hundreds of thousands of classified documents can be leaked in a second by leakers who may wish to do harm, not good, to society, then disclosed by organizations that are not necessarily public-spirited in the sense of The New York Times, The Guardian or The Washington Post, and when any publication is now instantly global in scope and may violate the laws of other nation states? What now indeed? These are the kinds of questions, like others involving state acquisition of massive data about activities of citizens, that constitute the anvil on which a society ultimately defined itself, especially in the respective roles of the state and its citizens. So tonight’s discussion is a special moment in that larger sense.

It is now my great pleasure to introduce our wonderful new Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, Steve Coll.