Speaking to a large crowd at Coffman Union Theater, Mark Stephens, an internationally renowned lawyer and former counsel for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, brought a small part of the WikiLeaks debate to the University of Minnesota on Tuesday night.
Stephens, well-known for defending free speech and expression, spoke about many of the legal dilemmas facing WikiLeaks and its editor Julian Assange, as well as current issues with freedom of speech.
Sparking controversy since its inception in 2007, WikiLeaks became a media sensation after releasing a 17-minute video in April 2010 titled “Collateral Murder,” which showed American soldiers killing two Reuters journalists from an Apache helicopter.
In the months since, the site has also released hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents, and Assange has become the face of one of the most talked about media organizations in the world.
“This is a man that people have strong opinions about. Here in America, he may be quite unpopular, but if you go to North Africa and the Middle East, many of the people are intensely grateful to him,” Stephens said.
Some of the U.S. diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks released revealed widespread corruption in the Middle East and helped fuel the development of the Arab Spring, he said.
“It has been one of the spurs to fundamental change,” Stephens said of Assange’s organization.
The U.S. government was outraged and suggested it would press charges against Assange for releasing the confidential documents, but no formal charges have been made.
Stephens said that’s because U.S. prosecutors don’t have a strong enough case.
“The worst of all possible worlds for the Americans is to have him brought here for a show trial, turn him into a martyr and then have him acquitted. That would be terrible,” Stephens said.
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota and Stephens’ longtime friend, echoed his beliefs and said there are no clear laws on which the prosecution could build a case.
“They only want to bring cases that they’re confident they can win, and I think with the existing legal structure, they’re not confident they can win,” Kirtley said in an interview.
If a case were to move forward, it could have a profound impact on the First Amendment, Kirtley said.
“It raises really fundamental questions about whether someone who is not subject to any kind of secrecy agreement with the government, like a government employee, can be subject to prosecution. We don’t really know the answer to that question and it’s possible that this case could answer that,” Kirtley said. “I think it’s really difficult to overestimate how significant this case could be if it ever came to that.”
Assange is under house arrest in England and currently fighting extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault investigation. And though he has not been publicly involved with WikiLeaks for some time, he remains a polarizing figure internationally.
Rodrigo Zamith, a University graduate student in journalism, said that while it’s hard to say whether WikiLeaks has had a positive or negative impact, it all depends on the context in which WikiLeaks is viewed.
“I think in the U.S., it’s been bad because it rallies people to support legislation clamping down on whistleblowers and further erosion of the First Amendment, but it’s been wonderful in the Middle East,” Zamith said.