Lindsay Adams 2012 is tackling the thorny topic of the rights and responsibities of WikiLeaks. It began last spring in class with Louise Woodstock, Assistant Professor in Media & Communication Studies. In Woodstock’s course History and Theory of Freedom of Expression, Adams was part of a group that presented on Wiki Leaks, the international non-profit organization that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous sources and whistleblowers.
Students explained both the positive and negative aspects of WikiLeaks. Founded by Julian Assange, the group notoriously made public highly-sensitive information about the U.S. government. Adams is working on a set of claims about the moral and ethical obligations WikiLeaks incurs, says her honors project mentor Kelly Sorensen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion.
“The presentation facilitated a great discussion in the class,” says Adams, a Media and Communications/Applied Ethics major. “But I was still eager to learn more. It became apparent researching WikiLeaks as a Summer Fellows and Honors project would be a great way to fuse both of my interests and majors—Media and Communication Studies as well as Applied Ethics.” Adams is the College’s only Applied Ethics major.
Most people believe there are cases in which there is a moral obligation to keep certain information private and secure, says Professor Sorensen. “For instance, doctors should keep their patients’ secrets,” he says. “Are there moral obligations to keep the information of states – democratic and otherwise – private and secure? Does the WikiLeaks organization do anything morally wrong when they make public classified information that falls into their hands? Lindsay argues that WikiLeaks does have moral obligations about information – obligations that they have often ignored.”
The strongest objection to WikiLeaks, says Adams, is the harmful information argument which argues that the documents WikiLeaks releases have sensitive information and that WikiLeaks is releasing the documents unethically and in a way that can potentially cause great harm. “Opponents of WikiLeaks also argue that there are already sufficient ways to obtain confidential information from the United States government—the Freedom of Information Act, and therefore WikiLeaks is not necessary.”
There are potential ethical and political risks of allowing WikiLeaks to function, says Adams.
“There have been many reservations about WikiLeaks and its operations, noting the documents being released can be a threat to United States national security as well as individual security. Even though there has not been any concrete evidence that WikiLeaks has caused any damage nationally or individually, those concerns need to be taken into consideration, and it is necessary for WikiLeaks to consider those arguments in order to gain credibility from individuals across the spectrum.”
It’s essential, she says, that they minimize as much potential harm to achieve a greater good.
But there are risks in making WikiLeaks illegal, she says, and clamping down could unjustly suppress some citizen’s voices.
“For our democratic government to exist effectively, freedom of speech needs to have a pragmatic approach without government restriction,” says Adams. “Our First Amendment has a ‘central meaning’—a core of protection of speech without which democracy cannot function.”
By Kate Campbell