When It Comes to Freedom of Speech, Julian Assange Is the Least of Our Worries
Fellow Americans! The moment we’ve feared is upon us! Delete those visits to nevertrump.org from your browsing history! Burn your paper copies of the New York Times! Move your printing presses to a secure location!
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested! The end of free speech in the United States is nigh!
Except, not really.
While the arrest was very obviously politically motivated, the details of the single-count indictment against Assange make it clear that, at least for now, our First Amendment rights are still mostly intact. If that wasn’t the case, he’d be charged with a lot more than just helping Chelsea Manning access a computer illegally.
Sure, there’s some debate as to whether the allegations made against Assange are actual crimes or just fall within the scope of what a journalist has to do to protect their sources, but either way, a person’s right to publicly share potentially damaging information about the government is not on trial here.
However, none of the above is meant to imply that our First Amendment rights will forever and always be safe and secure under Trump.
No, he definitely wants you to shut your leftist mouth and would love if the law required as much. There’s no arguing that. It’s just that there are a lot more egregious examples of the Trump administration cracking down on free speech than what’s happening to Julian Assange right now.
Where to even begin? Maybe at the beginning? That feels like a logical starting point. Trump came out swinging right away when it came to silencing dissent when the feds demanded that Facebook turn over the names of anyone who “liked” pages tied to organizing inauguration day protests.
In case you’re curious, aside from the 20 or so who pleaded guilty, all of the defendants in those cases were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. Seeing as how more than 200 people were initially charged, that’s probably a good sign, even if the government going after them in the first place very much is not.
Another early example of the Trump administration’s push to take the stifling of free speech in frightening new directions was the Josh Hadley case. He’s a freelance journalist who spent the year prior to the 2016 election trolling Trump online. Because some of his posts involved jokes about the president being assassinated, the Secret Service got involved.
Nothing unusual about that, obviously. Where it gets weird is the call the Secret Service made to one of Hadley’s employers. The feds wanted to know if his editors had removed any “inflammatory statements” from his writing before publishing it online. Wanting to know if someone is planning to kill the president is just the Secret Service doing their job. Wanting to know the contents of a journalist’s unpublished work is some Gestapo shit.
Of course, any discussion about Trump’s desire to crush dissent in this country would be incomplete without mentioning his famous “the media is the enemy of the people” crusade.
In recent weeks he’s narrowed the scope of those complaints to “the New York Times is the enemy of the people.” Is that better? Not really, if anything it just gives the more zealous elements of his base a more refined target for their rage. You know, that same element that Trump promises will turn “very bad” if the left gets too ugly with their criticism.
Speaking of that, I’d argue that the most chilling example of this government’s willingness to target their detractors is that list of journalists, lawyers, and activists they put together in relation to the “migrant caravan” story.
Remember that? It was first reported on by NBC San Diego, made the news rounds very briefly, and then any and all mention or talk of it evaporated into the ether.
Same thing with immigration activists being targeted for deportation by ICE. What’s happening to Ravi Ragbir is way scarier than what’s happening to Julian Assange, but the outrage around that case hasn’t exactly resonated with the public.
What we have heard plenty about, thanks mostly to Trump himself, is that executive order that threatens to withhold federal money from any college that doesn’t “protect free speech” on its campus.
Oh, the irony! Protecting free speech by telling college kids what they can and cannot protest.
Even better, it’s all inspired by two isolated incidents that happened at UC Berkeley, an institution that, despite Republican claims to the contrary, has allowed several conservatives to speak at their campus over the past couple years.
The most underrated and under-reported aspect of team Trump’s war on your right to say unfriendly things about the government is also, unfortunately, the most boring to talk about. That would be the push to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management.
If you’re unfamiliar, the OPM is, essentially, the human resources department for the federal government. It’s a massive organization that impacts the lives of more than two million government employees. It’s also a disorganized mess that didn’t do itself any favors by falling victim to a massive data breach in 2015.
Even Obama toyed with the idea of forcing some changes to how it operates. He did that in one major way when he issued an executive order that called for language protecting transgender people from discrimination in the work place to be added to OPM guidelines.
That language has since disappeared from the website. Imagine that.
Mere changes are not what Trump has in mind, though. According to an executive order that’s reportedly in the works, he wants to eliminate the OPM altogether and shift their functions to other government agencies.
It’s two of those functions that makes this a suspicious move on his part.
First, the Office of Personnel Management is the department responsible for approving and/or denying government security clearances. Not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s been some controversy surrounding the Trump administration and security clearances in recent months.
If you’re wondering how that relates to free speech, I’d point you to Trump’s efforts last year to revoke security clearances of former government officials who had the gall to criticize him on television.
Is the move to eliminate the OPM at all related to the eventual failure of that initiative? Yeah, probably, but it’s nothing anyone can prove. So it will most likely happen, and no one will say much about it. After all, if Obama wanted it too, how bad can it be?
Another key function of the OPM is whistleblower protection. If you want to report fraud, abuse, or waste within a government department, the OPM is where you go to do it. Under Trump’s plan, those duties would be shifted to the General Services Administration, which is basically the government’s…real estate agency?
Even before moving to shift the function of whistleblower protection away from the OPM, Trump made clear which side of the employee grievance fight he sympathizes with back in 2017. That’s when he appointed a man named Henry Kerner as head of the Office of Special Counsel, the department within the OPM that deals with whistleblowers.
Prior to taking that role, Kerner was involved with a group that sued the Environmental Protection Agency for access to the incoming and outgoing communications of lifelong EPA employees who they claimed were using anonymous messaging apps like Signal to talk, off the record, about how to deal with Trump’s appointees.
If you’re a potential whistleblower, knowing you’ll ultimately have to take your complaint to that guy likely doesn’t instill you with a ton of confidence that you’ll be treated fairly. Maybe hold off and see if the real estate team takes you more seriously.
While they don’t make for visuals and headlines that even begin to approach the sexiness of “Assange dragged kicking and screaming out of Ecuadorian embassy,” all the things mentioned above do way more to stifle free speech and dissent in this country than arresting the founder of Wikileaks over potentially bullshit charges ever will.
That’s how movements like what’s happening in the United States right now succeed. They don’t call it “creeping” fascism for nothing. No one shows up and says “I’m your new authoritarian leader” and rewrites every law and arrests every dissident overnight. Instead, they chip away at those freedoms gradually and quietly until, one day, you just realize they’re all gone.
So, sure, keep an eye on the story and be concerned about what’s happening with Julian Assange. But if that arrest was the moment you finally realized that freedom of speech is under attack in this country, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
Attacks on our First Amendment rights have been a constant presence under Trump, and they will be for as long as he’s in office.