Often it is the case that the protagonists of precedential civil liberties issues are questionable characters. There are more Escobedos than Martin Luther Kings in the pantheon of personalities whose names symbolize important constitutional issues. Julian Assange is the most recent case in point. Assange leads a weird life-on-the-run, and is a hero to some while an outlaw to many. Like many notorious figures, he provokes the law and generates distracting side stories like the questionable rape claims in Sweden. But Assange’s leaks are causing commentators to revisit our government’s secrecy laws, and this is good.

Typically, fundamental social changes come slowly, unpredictably and painfully to their leaders. Media scholar Edward Wasserman points out that the Internet is a “transformative and emancipatory event offering an unprecedented universalization of the capacity to know,” exactly what WikiLeaks purports to offer. Five national commissions studied our rules for classification of government records, and urged radical reforms leading to more openness, without success. Wiki may accomplish by its outlaw approach what these prestigious commissions failed to accomplish by pursuing traditional channels.

Responsible traditional press agencies like The New York Times printed most, but not all, of the Wiki leaks. Will the Times be subjected to criminal prosecutions, as Assange has been threatened? The Justice Department seems to think — leaks indicate — that Assange might be indicted as a conspirator to the actual leaker, Army underling Bradley Manning. Is the Times such a conspirator? Every leaker knows that all media encourage leaks — are they conspirators by doing so? How uncomfortable will the mainline media be defending Assange as the unpopular standard-bearer of reform of government secrecy policies?

Stay tuned. Some good reforms of our government records practices may yet come from these events. Why do we need unpopular provocateurs and extreme provocative actions to get there?

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney and author. His recent book, In Confidence — When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure, was published last year. This is his fourth blog on this subject.