COMMENTARY: Who does the Espionage Act of 1917 apply to and is it still relevant today? (Audio)

Aug 22, 2022 at 06:32 am by WGNS

COMMENTARY: So the question that MTSU Professor Larry Burris takes a look at today - - Who does the Espionage Act of 1917 apply to and is it still relevant today? With more, here is Dr. Burriss…


COMMENTARY – VERBATIM: “During the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a lot of discussion about the Espionage Act of 1917. Who, or what, does the act apply to? What are the penalties for violations? Is the act still relevant?

And as you have undoubtedly noticed, both Republicans and Democrats are telling us their interpretation of the act is the correct one, and the interpretation of the other side is just plain wrong.

Unfortunately, the very language of the act, and its legislative history, are part of the confusion, as all sides pick and choose the language they want you to believe is the truth.

In the original version of the 1917 act, it would have made it illegal for newspapers to publish classified information.

However, that part of the act was deliberately removed. Apparently, Congress had no intention of censoring the news media when it came to classified defense information.

So far so good. But there’s a catch.

In several places the act talks about someone having unauthorized possession of classified information, and giving it to another unauthorized person, being guilty of a serious felony, and faces 10 years in prison.

Obviously, then, a newspaper reporter is someone who has unauthorized possession, and transmits it to another unauthorized person, the readers, viewer or listener. So should the reporter be jailed?

Well, Congress clearly did not intend to penalize newspapers. But the act says “anyone.”  Does that “anyone” include reporters?

But, if Congress intended to include reporters in this “anyone,” why did it take those sections out? Obviously, it did not intend to punish reporters. But, after all, the act does say “anyone.”

So what is your take. I bet if you tell me which side you come down on I can probably tell you your political persuasion

And the act also uses such words as “knowingly” and “intent to harm.”

Complicating all of this is the mixed history of presidents using classified information, and prosecution of reporters, for their own ends.

Oh, and by the way, all of these arguments have been going on since the first days of the republic. - I’m Larry Burriss”

About Dr. Burriss - Larry Burriss, professor of journalism, teaches introductory and media law courses. At the graduate level he teaches quantitative research methods and media law. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (B.A. in broadcast journalism, M.A. in journalism), the University of Oklahoma (M.A. in human relations), Ohio University (Ph.D. in journalism) and Concord Law School (J.D.). He has worked in print and broadcast news and public relations, and has published extensively in both academic and popular publications. He has won first place in the Tennessee Associated Press Radio Contest nine times. Dr. Burriss' publications and presentations include studies of presidential press conferences, NASA photography, radio news, legal issues related to adolescent use of social networking sites, legal research, and Middle Earth.

Dr. Burriss has served as director of the School of Journalism, dean of the College of Mass Communication and president of the MTSU Faculty Senate. He was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents. He was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and served on active duty in Mali, Somalia, Bosnia, Central America, Europe and the Pentagon.

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