A coalition of public interest, privacy and civil liberties groups released an open letter Wednesday to the Obama administration and lawmakers urging them not to push legislation that might weaken free expression or hamper online freedoms in response to the release of classified documents by WikiLeaks.
In the letter, the groups noted that some critics of the whistleblower website have suggested that the Espionage Act be extended to WikiLeaks for releasing sensitive government documents to the public, which most recently included a batch of U.S. diplomatic cables.
"We urge caution against any legislation that could weaken the principles of free expression vital to a democratic society or hamper online freedoms," according to the letter signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology and others.
The groups were particularly critical of some lawmakers and government officials who have argued against the ability of newspapers and other news outlets to report on the leaked classified documents and of government employees to read such stories. This was underscored by the Air Force's move to block its service members and employees from accessing the New York Times and other news outlets that have reported on the leaked documents from WikiLeaks.
The groups highlighted several legal cases that have upheld the rights of print and online publishers to print "truthful political information" that has been lawfully obtained by a publisher even if the source originally obtained it in an unlawful way.
The groups said it is "especially critical for members of Congress to keep these rights in mind as they consider any future legislation that may impact freedom of expression. In a free country, the government cannot and does not have unlimited power to determine what publishers can publish and what the public can read."
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., along with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., have introduced legislation targeted at WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange that would amend the Espionage Act to make it illegal to publish the names of human intelligence informants to the U.S. military and intelligence community.
"This legislation will help hold people criminally accountable who endanger these sources of information that are vital to protecting our national security interests," Lieberman said in a statement when the bill was introduced earlier this month.
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