Thirty-five law professors have written to the US Department of Justice warning that Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange 'pose an existential threat to the First Amendment'.

An appellate hearing on the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition from Britain to the US is scheduled to be held at the High Court in London next week. Assange has been held in Belmarsh prison for five years.

The professors write that although their 'personal views on Assange and WikiLeaks vary', they are 'united in our concern about the constitutional implications of prosecuting Assange'. Those implications 'could extend beyond the Espionage Act and beyond national security journalism [to] enable prosecution of routine newsgathering under any number of ambiguous laws and untested legal theories'.

Assange demo outside Old Bailey

Assange demo

Source: Michael Cross

Supporters of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange outside the Old Bailey

One of the letter’s signatories is James Goodale, former vice president and general counsel of The New York Times and an adjunct professor at Fordham School of Law. He believes that, if Assange is convicted, similar prosecutions seeking to criminalise investigative reporting are inevitable. 'Based on my experience, which includes serving as The New York Times’ general counsel when the Nixon administration tried to indict a journalist under the Espionage Act for publishing the Pentagon Papers, I am confident that a successful prosecution of Julian Assange would lead to similar charges against journalists from newspapers like the Times when they uncover secrets that embarrass officials. This would be absolutely disastrous for press freedom in the United States,' said Goodale.

Seth Stern, director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation, which helped organise the letter, said: 'Scholars, lawyers, media publishers and activists all agree that the prosecution of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act is sure to lead to prosecutions of journalists for doing their jobs. It seems the only people who disagree are the DOJ. It’s time for them to finally drop this dangerous prosecution. Whether you love or hate Julian Assange, if he comes first, a journalist you do like may come next.'

The letter can be read here.