Twenty members of the Columbia School of Journalism have written a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder expressing their opposition to charging Wikileaks founder Julian Assange with criminal counts for leaking a cache of classified State Department cables.

Some of the professors who signed the statement don’t agree with Assange or his methods. In fact, one high-profile signer, Professor Todd Gitlin, wrote a condemnation of Assange just a week or so ago in The New Republic. He said in the story that Wikileaks would weaken diplomatic relations across the world and increase official secrecy. And yet he believes that Assange should be protected from prosecution. “There are plenty of unethical or otherwise wrong-headed actions that should be morally sanctioned but remain legal,” Gitlin said. He added that Wikileaks is certainly conducting journalistic activity, and that a prosecution would chill journalistic conduct across the country. This is from the letter:

Any prosecution of Wikileaks’ staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity.

As a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.

The U.S. and the First Amendment continue to set a world standard for freedom of the press, encouraging journalists in many nations to take significant risks on behalf of transparency. Prosecution in the Wikileaks case would greatly damage American standing in free-press debates worldwide and would dishearten those journalists looking to this nation for inspiration.

Gitlin said that the Espionage Act in particular, which he couldn’t cite used in a case of this type since World War II, would create a very broad standard for prosecution on publishing virtually any state secret. “WikiLeaks, approve its m.o. or not, is certainly conducting what the letter calls ‘journalistic activity,’ however flawed,” Gitlin concluded.

(I should note that the Bush Administration sought a conviction under the Espionage Act against two employees of AIPAC who disseminated classified information. It was thought at the time that this was a step toward criminalizing journalistic activity.)

As Glenn Greenwald noted yesterday, prosecuting Wikileaks for engaging in the same activity as their traditional journalism partners would significantly damage freedom of the press.

Put simply, there is no intellectually coherent way to distinguish what WikiLeaks has done with these diplomatic cables with what newspapers around the world did in this case and what they do constantly: namely, receive and then publish classified information without authorization. And as much justifiable outrage as the Bush DOJ’s prosecution of the AIPAC officials provoked, at least the actions there resembled “espionage” far more than anything Assange has done, as those AIPAC officials actually passed U.S. secrets to a foreign government, not published them as WikiLeaks has done.

To criminalize what WikiLeaks is doing is, by definition, to criminalize the defining attribute of investigative journalism.

There’s very little, if any, difference between the stories written on Wikileaks, and, say, James Risen’s story from earlier this week about drug lords in Afghanistan. Both relied on classified information. Both printed the stories based on the public right to know. Both are protected under the First Amendment freedoms of the press. At least they used to be.

The letter is below.

Dear Mr. President and General Holder:

As faculty members and officers of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, we are concerned by recent reports that the Department of Justice is considering criminal charges against Julian Assange or others associated with Wikileaks.

Journalists have a responsibility to exercise careful news judgment when classified documents are involved, including assessing whether a document is legitimately confidential and whether there may be harm from its publication.

But while we hold varying opinions of Wikileaks’ methods and decisions, we all believe that in publishing diplomatic cables Wikileaks is engaging in journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment. Any prosecution of Wikileaks’ staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity.

As a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.

The U.S. and the First Amendment continue to set a world standard for freedom of the press, encouraging journalists in many nations to take significant risks on behalf of transparency. Prosecution in the Wikileaks case would greatly damage American standing in free-press debates worldwide and would dishearten those journalists looking to this nation for inspiration.

We urge you to pursue a course of prudent restraint in the Wikileaks matter.

Please note that this letter reflects our individual views, not a position of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Respectfully,

Emily Bell, Professor of Professional Practice; Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Helen Benedict, Professor
Sheila Coronel, Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice inInvestigative Journalism; Director, Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism
June Cross, Associate Professor
John Dinges, Godfrey Lowell Cabot Professor of Journalism
Joshua Friedman, Director, Maria Moors Cabot Prize for Journalism in the Americas
Todd Gitlin, Professor; Chair, PhD Program
Ari Goldman, Professor
LynNell Hancock, Professor; Director, Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship
Marguerite Holloway, Assistant Professor; Director, Science and Environmental Journalism
David Klatell, Professor of Professional Practice; Chair, International Studies
Nicholas Lemann, Dean; Henry R. Luce Professor
Dale Maharidge, Associate Professor
Arlene Notoro Morgan, Associate Dean, Prizes and Programs
Victor S. Navasky, George T. Delacorte Professor in Magazine Journalism; Director, Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism; Chair, Columbia Journalism Review
Michael Schudson, Professor
Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma
Alisa Solomon, Associate Professor; Director, Arts Concentration, M.A. Program
Paula Span, Adjunct Professor
Duy Linh Tu, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice; Coordinator, Digital Media Program