Issue 83, Fall 2001


Here in New York, there were a few sources of comfort in the weeks after September 11: victims, firefighters, police and other rescue workers heroically risked, and some lost, their lives for others. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (even though he’s not so hot on the First Amendment) provided notable leadership to New Yorkers coping with unprecedented disaster.

As we dig out and try to restore normalcy, even though threats proliferate around the country, civil libertarians and others have begun to ask not only what harm terrorists may yet inflict, but also what damage will be self-inflicted in response to this threat. Individual liberties have historically been vulnerable in times of crisis. Already, national security concerns are cited to justify expanded government power to detain immigrants, monitor electronic communications, invade on-line privacy, control news coverage, and suppress dissent.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer’s warning to all Americans to “watch what they say,” may have been deleted from the official transcript, but nonetheless spoke volumes. Overnight, dissent became unpatriotic and humor inappropriate. According to the New York Times, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice urged network executives to review statements by Osama bin Laden for “inflammatory language or potential hidden messages,” even though his statements would be available from other news sources. Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly asked the Emir of Qatar to exercise control over Al-Jazeera, a satellite channel, claiming that it is “inciting anti-Americanism” by showing U.S. bombardments and bin Laden statements. The Pentagon is keeping reporters away from military action, and selects the news that’s fit to print.

Elsewhere in government the chill is apparent as well. California Representative Barbara Lee, who voted against congressional authorization for retaliatory military action, now needs security guards for protection, and Congressman Joe McDermott of Washington has come under fire for urging caution in responding militarily.

Professors, students, reporters and media figures have also come under attack for responding to the crisis in the American way: by questioning, analyzing, debating, and expressing opinions. TV talk-show host Bill Maher and writer-critic Susan Sontag were excoriated for their views on what kind of conduct is “cowardly.” The Texas City Sun dismissed a columnist for an article headlined “Bush has failed to lead U.S.,” and a journalist was fired by the Daily Courier in Oregon for writing that it was an “embarrassment” that President Bush hid “in a Nebraska hole” while the Administration misinformed the public about threats to Air Force One. Professors in Florida and New Mexico have been placed on or taken leave, ostensibly for their own safety, after expressing unpopular political views.

The arts and entertainment have suffered as well. The cartoon, The Boondocks, by Aaron McGruder, was pulled from papers around the country for saying that the C.I.A. helped train Afghan rebels like bin Laden, and suggesting that the US has funded the Taliban. The Baltimore Museum of Art removed a piece of art because it contained the word “terrorist,” and replaced it only after including an explanation of the artist’s motivation. Even reading is suspect: one man was prevented from boarding a flight because the jacket cover of a book he was reading depicted dynamite!

Censorship in wartime to protect the safety and security of military troops and strategic information is understandable, but government attempts to muzzle the press and control public opinion undermine the very rights we are fighting to preserve. Liberties lost can become hard to restore.

NCAC has joined with the Society of Professional Journalists and others urging the Administration and Congress to respect First Amendment obligations to the public even in the fight on terrorism. Secrecy is permissible, according to the statement, only to the extent necessary “and only as long as necessary—to protect national security. …Journalistic scrutiny of the war on terrorism and publication of dissenting viewpoints are not signs of disloyalty to the nation, but rather expressions of confidence in democratic self-government and fulfillment of the First Amendment function of holding government accountable.”

For the full statement, click here.