WikiLeaks: An archivist/librarian’s perspective

11 Dec

WikiLeaks is quite the controversy, isn’t it?  Some people think it’s great, other people want Assange drawn and quartered.  I’ve seen a lot of people in my profession come out on the side of Assange, and wanting to defend what WikiLeaks is currently.

Those in favor of it argue that WikiLeaks is important because of its exercise of the first amendment, and that those people submitting information to it should not be viewed as criminals per se but as people who had an error in judgment (this only applies to some of the people and no one can seem to agree on who all these people are).  They correctly contend that the US Supreme Court has made rulings in the past related to the first amendment that guarantee not only free speech and the right to essentially create information via free speech, but also the right to receive information.  This is why librarians in a public or school library won’t disclose a child’s circulation history to parents; the law makes no distinction between minors and adults on the right to receive information except in the case of pornography and other common decency exceptions.  This applies to WikiLeaks because the American people are “entitled” to receive information about the workings of the government and that WikiLeaks can serve an important function: ideologically, it would be an outlet for inside sources to alert consumers/the public to underhanded or illegal actions taken by entities that they would want to know.  That would include things like a toy manufacturer using lead paint or cadmium in the toys, or a charity diverting 70% of its funding to pay people in the charity instead of using it for good works.  The fact it has moved to secret government documents is regrettable but now that we know what the government is doing we are able to hold them accountable – some good has come from it, and Assange and the people who feed him information or documents are really cultural warriors standing up for the rights of the people.  Vive le France!*

*If you don’t understand that reference, I’d suggest a brief history of the French Revolution and its impact on libraries and archives.

My professional opinion is that those taking this approach are incorrect at best and hypocritical at worst.  The first amendment rights I discussed earlier also extend to something referred to as “chilling free speech”.  In a nutshell, as library/archival professionals we are not obligated to comply with information requests that would impact others’ right to receive information.  Take the example of a teen’s check-out history at the public library.  A parent wants to know what their teen has been checking out, and any librarian worth his or her salt will deny this request because if the teen knows his or her parents can see their history, that teen becomes less likely to use resources in the future.  The teen’s right to receive information is harmed.  That’s what is meant by “chilling free speech”.

Those who are well-meaning but incorrect are those who recognize that information has intrinsic value.  They believe this information is valuable to the public and that because of its value it ought to be disseminated.  The reasons for this could be that people are entitled to know, they favor transparent government, they believe accountability is in order, or any combination of many factors.  I argue that this information is valuable because of its secured nature and that once it becomes public it is less so, even in some cases becoming actively dangerous.  The documents released contain information on the identities (names, addresses, etc) of Arabic informants to the US government on Al-Qaeda.  They contain the same information for spies working domestically and abroad.  They contain information about government workings that are necessities but that would be unpopular.  The government does not operate strictly on diplomacy, and anyone who thinks it does or should is a hopeless idealist; posturing and consequences are a vital part of making one’s country as strong as possible.

Those who believe Assange is acting in the best interests of the people are hypocrites; Assange’s actions are chilling free speech in the worst way.  Organizations might be afraid to create documents that contain trade secrets lest they end up on WikiLeaks, individuals working as operatives may not create reports lest their real names and homes end up on WikiLeaks.  The neat thing about chilling free speech is that it doesn’t actually have to be chilled – there need only be the threat of it being chilled and then those actions impinge on someone else’s first amendment rights.  I cannot as a professional support the actions of a person or group of persons who take away rights from so many people.  Librarians and archivists extend to patrons and donors the respect due to them – why would we do any less for someone who works for the government?  Why would we defend a chain of illegal actions that resulted in exposure of operatives and endangered families?

There’s a joke that the “l” in “librarian” stands for liberal.  I’ve certainly seen that to be the case in my experience.  But in this instance, I don’t think it should come down to a political ideology.  This is a simple case of protecting the rights of people the way we do each day.  Any information professional who supports the actions taken by Assange and his group and uses professional reasoning to do it, needs to re-read what the first amendment is all about.

Personal opinions are just that, and any type of reasoning is fair game.  I have my own on this issue.  But my professional opinion consists of reasoning based on court rulings and professional ethical standards, and nothing else.  Our jobs deserve no less from us.  Personal politics often factor into the way you apply reasoning, but fortunately in this case there are plenty of court rulings that are in no way ambiguous and universally accepted standards of behavior as set out by the American Library Association and the Society of American Archivists.  There is no reason not to uphold those, and I expect nothing but the best from all information professionals.  Extend impartially your defense of these rights to both patrons and people whose right to receive or create information is chilled.


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