Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Threats against the press

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Last night I was having a discussion about the first amendment to the US Constitution, the text of which I quote above. You'll note the first phrase: "Congress shall make no law". Interesting thing there, that it only restricts one of out three branches of government, putting no limits on the executive or judicial branches in that regard — the legislative branch is meant to keep the others in check. And while those two branches have spent most of their time over the last five years attacking the fourth (search and seizure) and fifth (due process) amendments, and have only done minor damage so far to the first, that may be changing.

It may be changing as the government puts more pressure on the press, threatening to prosecute it for reporting the news. The Emperor has declared, first with the news reports of wiretapping, and now with the news reports of collection of information about domestic phone calls, that the press are "helping our enemies", and are being irresponsible by disclosing "secret" information. The Attorney General is now going further by telling us that his department is considering prosecuting journalists for their news reports. Invoking the Espionage Act is declaring the journalists' actions treasonous.

This goes far beyond reason in a free society. If the administration wants to prosecute insiders who leaked classified information to the press, it may do so. But the press do not have security clearances, and are not obliged to protect classified information; quite the opposite: they are obliged to inform the public about actions of the administration about which the public should be concerned. Actions of the administration that are themselves arguably illegal. Actions that are an early step toward repression and autocracy. Actions that must be exposed before they lead us down that road. By exposing these actions to the scrutiny of the American public, the press is doing what it must do, what it exists for.

According to the Washington Post article, Attorney General Gonzales says

I understand very much the role that the press plays in our society, the protection under the First Amendment we want to promote and respect... but it can't be the case that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity.
The Attorney General is being quite disingenuous here. In fact, the government does not have the "right" to ignore the constitution in the guise of "go[ing] after criminal activity." In fact, the consitution is specifically protecting us against governmental abuses in overzealous pursuit of what it defines as criminal activity. In fact, the first amendment must "trump over" any actions by the government to undermine it.

1 comment:

FreeThinker said...

Right on. "No Law" means "No Law!"