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Debating Wikileaks and the Law

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger sat together on a panel at Columbia University’s Low Library.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger — partners in crime, perhaps, with Julian Assange — sat together on a panel at Columbia University’s Low Library last night. Former assistant attorney general Jack Goldsmith joined the editors to help them figure out if they would face charges for WikiLeaking.  

“If you were a betting man, would you say the prosecution is going to be brought or not?” asked the moderator, Emily Bell, a former Guardian editor.  

“I think the political pressure to bring one is enormous and I think there will be something brought, yes,” said Goldsmith, who has moved on from the Justice Department to a professorship at Harvard Law School. “I also don’t think it will succeed.”  

Statues of Demosthenes, Euripides, Sophocles and Augustus looked down on the panel from the library’s rotunda. The word Law was inscribed in large gilded letters in one corner, below the library’s dome. The Times distributed glossy postcard advertisements to the audience for “Open Secrets,” the newspaper’s e-book about WikiLeaks, at the door. It was a bullish night for the gravitas economy.  

  “God forbid, if this ever came to court, I’d be completely side-by-side with [Assange],” said the British Rusbridger. “I’m sure Bill would too.” He mentioned that partnering with an American newspaper, which enjoys many more freedoms under the First Amendment, was a great comfort to him in publishing the troves of secret material and cables.  

“Well I’m not a lawyer,” said Keller, cradling his fingers between his knees. “I think probably the Times lawyers would prefer that I not declare what we would do in a court of law. But I’ll tell you what I would do outside of a court of law… Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange, certainly American journalists and other journalists should feel a sense of alarm at any legal action that tends to punish Assange for doing essentially what journalists do.” Times managing editor Jill Abramson looked on, front and center in the audience.

  “Again, I’m not a lawyer, but so we’re clear on the record,” Keller continued. “I think, and I’ve said on several occasions, somebody in my job should be fairly humble about who gets to call themselves a journalists. We don’t pass out membership cards to that fraternity. If he wants to call himself that, that’s fine. I’ve said I don’t think of him as a journalist in the form we practice it.” The Times provided food and drink for anybody who wanted to stick around afterwards.

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