Apropos Will Baude’s post on the Michael Kinsley/Glenn Greenwald/Margaret Sullivan controversy, here’s a PrawfsBlawg post by Prof. Paul Horwitz. Though Prof. Horwitz and I disagree on whether the Free Press Clause provides special rights to the institutional press (beyond those it offers to all who use mass communications technology), I admire Prof. Horwitz’s work, and thought this post would be of interest to our readers:

There have been some heated reactions to Michael Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s book. (I’m not sure there are anything other than heated reactions these days, given the nature of online commentary. I do not consider this an unqualified good.) The Times’s public editor or ombudsperson, Margaret Sullivan, has written a somewhat silly commentary on the controversy, which the Times unwisely but understandably has given prominent coverage on its web site tonight. At the Volokh website, Will Baude argues that the Times was right to publish Kinsley’s review, although as I read it he is saying more than that — is saying that Kinsley is substantially right.

Of course the Times had every right to run the review and should not, as Sullivan argues, have edited out the heart of its colorable argument because it might be wrong or because, as she intimates, it constituted an unpardonable assault on journalism’s amour propre. But Kinsley’s argument is also basically correct. In that I agree with Will. But because we take different positions on how to get there and they are relevant to a good deal of my work, I thought it was worth spelling this out. (By way of disclosure, I have not read all of Greenwald’s book, but I have read the final chapter, which is the relevant chapter, and skimmed the remainder of the book.)

Whether you care much about the whole contretemps is of course your own affair. If you do or would like to, however, the key is this paragraph in Kinsley’s review:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

Sullivan replies:

Mr. Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand. [I interrupt to say that this last clause is what leads me to call Sullivan’s commentary silly, and to suggest that she intimates that the problem with the statement is its assault on the press’s amour propre.] Mr. Kinsley’s argument is particularly strange to see advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well.

Will disagrees with Sullivan, and agrees with Kinsley, in that — like his fellow blogger Eugene Volokh — he believes that “journalists have the same constitutional rights (with the same limits) as other citizens,” that the freedom of the press should be viewed in purely technological and not institutional or teleological terms. At least I think he does. He might simply mean to say that there are arguments to this effect, that they are reasonable and backed by good authority, and that it is therefore silly for Sullivan to suggest that Kinsley’s argument was beyond the pale. If that’s all he means, I join his opinion fully. (Although I wouldn’t rely too much on the majority’s discussion of the point in Citizens United, which was loosely constructed and weakly made. Eugene’s article is much better than that. Still, I suppose the Supreme Court is an authority.) To the extent that he means to subscribe to this argument more fully, however, I part ways with him. And yet I come to the same conclusion he does.

Unlike Eugene, I do believe that there is an important institutional element to freedom of the press. (I discuss my views in a chapter of this book, which I continue to hawk and which would make a fine belated Memorial Day present.) It raises difficult boundary questions, to be sure (so does freedom of religion, for that matter), and its legal status tends to be as much sub-constitutional as constitutional. But I believe it’s there: that there are relevant attributes and functions to the “press” and to the role of journalism, that they serve an important role in public discourse and particularly in the monitoring and checking of government power, and that they tend to receive some legal protection. (Sometimes that recognition comes less through a singling out of the press and more through the announcement of legal protections for every speaker that are nevertheless drafted very much with the press in mind and applied with special vigor in that context. Or so I have argued.)

I stress all this because, notwithstanding the different set of premises from which I am arguing, I think Kinsley’s argument is still basically right. I think he could have put the point much better, and that he is knowledgeable enough to do so. But he basically gets the law — and the good sense behind the law — right. Where he is inelegant is in his description of the press not getting the “final say” over the publication of government secrets. For the most part, absent the extraordinary circumstances in which injunctive relief would be permitted, the press (or any other speaker) does get the final say in whether to publish government secrets. Where Kinsley is right is that, even under a pretty staunch institutionalist view that might accord much greater privileges to the press than we currently do, of course the press does not get some absolute right to publish government secrets “with no legal consequences” — a “free pass.” There are good institutional reasons to take care with those consequences and not to leave the decision whether to impose them solely to the regime in power. And so we insist that the final decision is made through the legal system and with the important legal, factual, political, and constitutional restraints added to that decision through judicial review. If Kinsley meant by “the government” only the executive branch or the political branches, he would be wrong. But if we include the judicial system as well, then he is quite right that the final decision on whether press publication of government secrets will, after the fact of publication, carry legal consequences rests with “the government.” Any suggestions to the contrary in Sullivan’s piece are wrong. So, even if you don’t share Eugene’s view (or, possibly, Will’s), that “freedom of the press” is about nothing more than a technology — even if, as I do, you believe the press as an institution is important and constitutionally recognized — you should still conclude that Kinsley’s argument in this paragraph is basically right and that Sullivan is quite wrong.

Two shorter points. (What points wouldn’t be, by now?) A minor point first. Sullivan gigs Kinsley for employing ad hominem argument. This seems wrong to me. Kinsley’s discussion on this point is not an immaterial attack on something not present in the book. Much of Greenwald’s book, at least in the first and last chapters, is not a technical or even substantive discussion of the information contained in the Snowden disclosures: it is a discussion of Snowden’s good character, of his own moral decency and fierceness, of the sterling character of anyone who agreed with him, and of the low moral character of anyone who did not. Kinsley’s criticisms were relevant not only to the tone of the book — to call Greenwald’s writing in this book bombastic, as Kinsley does, is like calling the Hindenburg a wee balloon — but to its content. The irony thickens insofar as most of the negative responses to Kinsley’s review are mostly rich with the sneering tone that his critics accuse Kinsley of using, although without his style. Sullivan is wrong to say Kinsley gets too personal in the review; the review is as personal as the book — correction: the memoir — requires. (I would agree, however, that Greenwald’s character or bombast are irrelevant to the substance or value of the disclosures themselves. I do not expect my news to be brought to me by cherubim.)

Second, I was surprised to see some of Greenwald’s supporters echo a line that appears in Kinsley’s review and in Greenwald’s book, in which Greenwald deplores a TV journalist for asking him about the potential legal consequences of his actions. In the book, Greenwald says that question constitutes “an extraordinary assertion” that “journalists could and should be prosecuted for doing journalism.” As an institutionalist on the question of press freedom, and as a former journalist, I might be expected to like that sentence. But it’s rot. I admire its brevity; but if it can be said to mean anything at all, which I doubt, it is wrong.