Issue 109, Winter 2008/2009

First Amendment rights have taken a beating in the last eight years. With new faces in Washington, this trend may be reversed. Here are some of the issues to watch.

Freedom of information. In October 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued new rules to federal agencies to discourage public disclosure of even non-classified information. The result has been an unprecedented level of government secrecy. With a stroke of the pen, the new Attorney General could restore a presumption in favor of openness and transparency in government.

Abstinence-only education. These ineffectual programs use federal dollars and suppress information on contraception, same sex relationships, HIV/AIDs, and abortion, sacrificing health and education in favor of indoctrination. Surely Congress can find better uses for scarce resources.

National security. After 9/11, freedom of the press, the right of dissent, freedom of association, privacy rights, and scholarly discourse all lost ground to concerns for national security. Restoring these rights ought to have top priority if the new
government values a better informed public, vigorous discussion and debate, and greater accountability of public officials.

Stem cell research. Religiously-based limits on federal funding for stem cell research impede research on potential treatments for serious diseases. A reversal of this policy would signal federal support for setting a research agenda based on widely-accepted scientific and ethical standards.

Global warming. The Bush administration suppressed and distorted research on global warming, most famously through its attempt to silence the nation’s top climate
scientist James Hansen. Repudiation of that policy would open the way for uncensored research and discussion on the issue, both nationally and internationally.

Global gag rule. The “global gag rule,” created by executive order, prohibits federally-funded international health and family planning organizations from telling women about the availability of abortion even in countries where it is legal. Equally troubling, under current law women in this country are denied access to information about abortion in federally-funded family planning clinics, even if those clinics don’t provide abortions. These gag rules censor valuable speech.

This list is far from exhaustive. Consider other problem areas: government regulation of broadcast media, limits on arts funding, restraints on union activities, laws against obscenity and child pornography that penalize speech, and intimidation of government whistleblowers and reporters. There is plenty of work to be done if the incoming administration and Congress intend to restore First Amendment values to a place of honor in national policy.