My professional group, the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Education (AEJMC), just released a statement decrying the current administrations approach to prosecuting press leaks.

It’s an important statement because President Obama is taking an unprecedented tack with these historically common leaks. Our group — obviously concerned with protecting good journalism and public accountability — should not remain silent while this happens. Many are quite surprised that Obama — who promised to be transparent and more open in dealing with the press — appears to many to be no different that his predecessor.

For the average person, the value of leaking classified information is lost. However, most “big stories” that uncover government abuse and waste came to the press by way of an anonymous whistleblower who leaked the information. The statement opens:

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) is committed to freedom of speech and the press in the United States and abroad. AEJMC believes that this commitment must include a free exchange of information and ideas, even some information that the U.S. government considers or wishes to be “secret.” The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and the existence of clandestine CIA prisons are examples in which secret government information was leaked to and publicized by the news media. In these and in many other cases, the dissemination of secret information served a greater good to American society by informing the public and by allowing for a needed debate on the ethics of secret government policies and covert actions. We believe that a democracy shrouded in secrecy encourages corruption, and we agree, as Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The statement then goes on to outline the current approach:

AEJMC, therefore, calls attention to the current administration’s zeal in prosecuting those in government who leak secret information. Only three times in its first 92 years was the Espionage Act of 1917 used to prosecute government officials for leaking secret information to the press. However, the current administration has already brought six charges under this Act. The accused in all of these cases appear to represent whistleblowers, not those engaged in attempted espionage for foreign governments that “aid the enemy.”

Huge difference between giving information to an enemy spy and leaking it to the press — at least if you live in a democracy where press freedom is seen as an important check on the power of the government. But the current administration isn’t acknowledging that difference:

We caution that the prosecution of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a trove of secret data to the WikiLeaks website, appears to be excessively punitive, with a chilling effect on a democracy’s requisite freedom of speech and the press. The release of this information advanced and clarified public debate on the morality of U.S. policy. Some observers even suggest that the honest (albeit secret) diplomatic assessments of Middle Eastern regimes helped spark the Arab Spring. Pfc. Bradley Manning has already admitted in military court that he did break the law through his actions. But to accuse him of “aiding the enemy” is egregious, given his credible stated intentions and the global breadth of the dissemination.

The government’s current approach toward leak prosecutions sends a message to the rest of the world that the United States’ actions are not fully aligned with its stated “exceptional” commitment to freedom of speech and the press as a human right

Great point. We can’t just go around lecturing the world about the value of a free press and then prosecute an important part of its function here at home. The statement concludes with suggestion for future action

Therefore, in recognition of the historical benefits of leaked information to our nation and to the principles and values of democracy, in particular the freedom of speech and the press, AEJMC calls on the U.S. government to make prosecutions as rare as possible, to consider the credible intent of the accused in these prosecutions, and to seek punishment that is proportionate and commensurate, not only with credible intent, but also with resulting harm and benefit to our democracy, its principles and values. Furthermore, we ask that prosecutors consider reviewing existing press leak cases in light of the public good and the First Amendment. AEJMC believes that this will ensure an environment in which the public will continue to be served through the occasional leaking of secret information by those whose credible intent was the public good.

Note that the statement doesn’t call for the absolute prohibition of prosecution of press leaks — however, we certainly feel that they should far more rare than they are right now.

The president of AEJMC, the presidential advisory committee, and the Professional Freedom and Responsibility Chairs of each division (including myself, Media Ethics Division) helped draft the statement. I’m proud that we as a group are standing strongly for press freedom and that we live in a country where such speech is protected and valued.