Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew P. Napolitano argued Thursday that the Trump administration’s criminal case against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is unconstitutional.

Mr. Napolitano, a former New Jersey state Superior Court judge, claimed that prosecuting Mr. Assange for releasing classified government material runs afoul of the First Amendment.

In an op-ed published online by Fox News, the columnist and legal expert reasoned that Mr. Assange’s conduct should be shielded by the U.S. Constitution’s right to freedom of speech. Mr. Napolitano also writes a column for The Washington Times.

Mr. Napolitano made his case as the U.S. Department of Justice seeks to extradite Mr. Assange from the U.K. to stand trial for charges related to running the WikiLeaks website.

Citing a landmark decision reached decades earlier following the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a trove of classified documents about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Mr. Napolitano wrote that “the court ruled that all truthful matters material to the public interest that come into the hands of journalists — no matter how they get there — may lawfully be disseminated.”

“The Pentagon Papers Case is a profound explication of one of the great values underlying the freedom of speech; namely, the government cannot lawfully punish those who publish truths it hates and fears,” Mr. Napolitano wrote later in the op-ed.

“Regrettably, the Trump administration is pretending the Pentagon Papers Case does not exist. It is manifesting that pretense in its criminal pursuit of international gadfly and journalist Julian Assange,” he added.

Mr. Assange, a 48-year-old Australian, is wanted in the U.S. for charges related to receiving and publishing classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents provided in 2010 by former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. He faces 18 criminal counts, including mostly violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, and the possibility of decades in prison if extradited and convicted.

“When lawyers blatantly reject well-accepted law for some political gain, they violate their oaths to uphold the law. When government lawyers do this, they also violate their oaths to uphold the Constitution,” Mr. Napolitano opined, adding that the Trump administration’s reasoning for seeking Mr. Assange “shows a pitiful antipathy to personal freedom.”

“Might all of this be part of the Trump administration’s efforts to chill the free speech of its press critics — to deny them breathing room?” he added. “After all, it has referred to them as ‘sick,’ ‘dishonest,’ ‘crazed,’ ‘unpatriotic,’ ‘unhinged’ and ‘totally corrupt purveyors of fake news.’ ”

Indeed, President Trump has frequently smeared media outlets who have critically covered his administration, all the while praising more laudatory organizations such as Fox News.

He also previously hailed WikiLeaks while running for president over its release during the 2016 race of stolen documents damaging to his former Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Napolitano, on his part, previously called Mr. Assange a “hero” after the WikiLeaks publisher was arrested in London last year in connection with a U.S. extradition request.

More recently, Mr. Assange’s legal team referenced a Fox News report during his extradition trial this week in which the WikiLeaks publisher was described on the network as a “terrorist,” according to an NBC News reporter in attendance.

Extradition proceedings for Mr. Assange are scheduled to continue Thursday at Woolwich Crown Court in London prior to a second round of hearings being held beginning in May.

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