Issue 101, Spring 2006

"Manipulation of information has been a basic matter of policy – used to overwhelm dissent."

— Carl Bernstein, Vanity Fair, April 2006

There probably has been no better time in NCAC’s 32-year history to go back to basics. So, in honor of CN #101, we present the following "crash course" on free speech issues, circa 2006.

The First Amendment prohibits government officials from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Yet they can effectively eviscerate these freedoms through secrecy, intimidation, and surveillance, tactics which inevitably exert a chilling effect on speech.

Just this March, Congress renewed the USA Patriot Act, making permanent all but two of its provisions, including:

  • The FBI can search library and bookstore records with no probable cause.

  • The language used to define "terrorist" groups is broad enough to potentially include anti-war activists and Muslim charities.

  • The Secret Service has expanded authority to set up “free speech zones” to quarantine protesters’ voices at public events.

Police and federal agents have infiltrated groups with no known connection to terrorism, such as the Thomas Merton Center for Peace in Pennsylvania. In New Mexico, a nurse was investigated for “sedition” after she sent a letter to the editor of a local paper criticizing the administration’s handling of Iraq and its response to Hurricane Katrina. These developments reflect an official viewpoint that dissent is suspect, if not outright treasonous.

Pursuant to secret Presidential authorization, the National Security Agency has engaged in warrantless wiretapping, an apparent violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress seems poised to rewrite the law to retroactively legitimize the program, while the CIA director has said,citing security concerns, that the reporters who broke the story (which earned them Pulitzer Prizes) should disclose their confidential sources or face possible prosecution.

While national security is clearly essential, it has been wrongly invoked to stonewall investigations into official misconduct, to intimidate dissenters, whistleblowers, and journalists, and to justify reclassifying more than 55,000 pages in the National Archives.

Joining a growing chorus, Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein has called for an investigation into the Bush administration’s abuses, to determine if the “manipulation of information has been a basic matter of policy – used to overwhelm dissent [and] to hide troublesome truths and inconvenient data from the press, public, and Congress….”

Americans might be more outraged if they were only more aware of their rights: a recent poll found that only 1 in 1000 knew all the rights enshrined in the First Amendment, while 1 in 5 agreed that it protects one’s right to own a pet. Another reports that nearly half of high schoolers believe that the government can censor the Internet. It’s not just our elected officials who need a crash course on the First Amendment!


Polls cited: The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum and The First Amendment Center’s annual "State of the 1st Amendment"