Congressional Release of Classified Information and the Disciplinary Power

In reference to my last post, it has been suggested by one of the more faithful commenters at Balkinization, Shag from Brookline, that the Speech or Debate Clause might bar a house of┬áCongress from taking disciplinary action against a member who unilaterally releases classified information without authorization. Shag asks: “Can action by Congress trump the specific Speech and Debate [sic] clause? Is such Speech and Debate permitted to be questioned in a house of Congress with such action but not in any other Place? Does the First Amendment speech clause enhance or detract from the right (privilege) of a member of Congress under the Speech and Debate [sic] clause?” Shag goes on to ask how the original understanding of and historical practice under the Speech or Debate Clause might be applied in the context of “the fairly recently evolved national security state.”

As legal questions go, the ones Shag asks with regard to the Speech or Debate Clause have very straightforward answers. The text of the Clause is clear that it applies only in “any other Place,” i.e., outside the legislative branch. See, e.g., Howard v. Office of the Chief of Administrative Officer, No. 12-5119 (D.C. Cir. June 28, 2013) (“because the Office of Compliance process occurs within the Legislative Branch, not in a ‘other Place,’ the Speech or Debate Clause does not pose an issue in those cases”) (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting); see also United States v. Brewster, 408 U.S. 501, 517-21 (1972) (discussing the fact that misconduct protected by the Speech or Debate Clause may nonetheless be punished by either house under its disciplinary power). As far as I know, no member has ever asserted the Speech or Debate Clause, either as a defense or as a protection against inquiry, in the course of a congressional disciplinary proceeding. Nor has any scholar, court or anyone else with expertise on the Clause suggested that it could apply in a congressional proceeding. Put simply, a member who faces disciplinary action as the result of disclosing classified information can take no solace in the Speech or Debate Clause.

The question with regard to the First Amendment is slightly more complicated. We recently discussed, in the context of the Rangel case, the question of whether and to what extent constitutional protections apply in congressional disciplinary proceedings. As Outside Counsel’s report indicates, even if such protections apply, they cannot be applied in a rigid manner that ignores the unique nature, purpose and history of congressional disciplinary proceedings. Thus, while one can imagine a plausible First Amendment defense in a congressional disciplinary proceeding (say, for example, if the House or Senate sought to punish members who give interviews to a disfavored press outlet), it is unthinkable that the First Amendment would prevent the House and Senate from enforcing rules that are broadly consistent with traditional limitations on member speech. For example, members cannot claim a First Amendment right to violate rules of decorum and debate, by say interrupting another member who has the floor, using foul language in congressional proceedings, or insulting the President.

Is there a colorable argument that disclosure of classified information by a member deserves First Amendment protection from congressional discipline, perhaps because of the importance of such disclosure in checking “the fairly recently evolved national security state”? Put me in the deeply skeptical camp on that one. Both the House and Senate have had specific prohibitions against unauthorized disclosure of classified information for decades. Punishing members for unauthorized disclosure of secret information goes back even further. On December 31, 1810, it is reported: “The Senator from Massachusetts (Mr. Pickering) was censured for reading from confidential documents in the Senate in open session before the injunction of secrecy had been removed.” Riddick’s Senate Procedure 270 n.1. It is hard to imagine the House and Senate intelligence and ethics committees agreeing that individual members have a constitutional right to violate congressional secrecy rules just because they believe the public interest requires it.

Whatever the merits of such a constitutional argument, however, it will be weaker if a member makes it without first attempting to use the established congressional procedures for releasing classified information. This was my original point, and if Professor Ackerman or anyone else disagrees, they should explain why.