Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Freedom of Speech

More than twenty years ago, noted cultural conservatives Ice-T and Jello Biafra made the following point:

We should be able to say anything, our lungs were meant to shout
Say what we feel, yell out what's real
Even though it may not bring mass appeal

They also made a few suggestions about potential activities that the city of Columbus, Georgia, might undertake that seem ill-considered, even anatomically improbable, but that's the thing about free speech -- done correctly, it's likely to make someone angry.

So what's this all about? In a column for USA Today, Glenn Reynolds talks about new guidelines from the Justice Department concerning journalism:
Last week, stung by reactions to phone-snooping on reporters (and, in at least one case, a reporter's parents), the Justice Department issued new guidelines for dealing with the media when investigating leaks. Many people are cheering these guidelines, but I'm not sure they're good enough.
Reynolds makes two points, both crucial:
I have two problems: First, in the incidents mentioned above, according to Associated Press President Gary Pruitt, the Justice Department violated its old guidelines. If the Justice Department didn't follow its own rules before, why is it more likely to follow the new rules? Ultimately, it's hard to trust an administration that seems to see every legal requirement as, like ObamaCare, waivable when inconvenient.

My second problem is more general. Does this policy protect anyone doing journalism, or just members of the establishment? The Justice Department talks about protection for "news media" (the guidelines don't use the word "press") but doesn't provide any guidance on just who that is. Presumably, if you're drawing a paycheck from the New York Times or Gannett (the parent company of USA TODAY), you're covered. (But note that, not too long ago, the Obama administration was claiming that Fox News, home of James Rosen, one of the key targets of recent Justice Department snooping, was not a "legitimate news organization.") If the Justice Department can pick and choose in this fashion, the guidelines don't mean much.
As a reminder, here is the text of the First Amendment:
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.
Of course, a "guideline" from an Executive Branch agency isn't a law, but it certainly could have the force of law, especially if it's the law enforcement branch of the federal government that is promulgating it. One might assume that the courts would eventually slap Eric Holder and his pals down, but it would take time and a lot of mischief could ensue in the meantime. Back to Reynolds:
Government licensing of the press is one of the biggest First Amendment no-nos. But if the government is in the business of deciding who counts as a "legitimate news organization" -- and, more importantly, who doesn't -- then the result looks suspiciously like a licensing scheme of some sort.

It also looks kind of clubby. Washington is already rife with crony capitalism, but if these protections are limited to Big Media journalists it starts to look a lot like crony journalism. The administration gives journalism's old-boy-network a pass, in exchange for not rocking the boat too much, while leaving itself free to go after the very outsiders who are most likely to do hard-hitting investigations.
I'm not, nor will I ever be, a "legitimate news organization." I'm just a guy running a family blog. And I suppose the likelihood that my rantings will ever gain the scrutiny of the feds is pretty low. But it's awfully difficult to think of a reason that the feds should have any right to issue any guidelines about my credentials for ranting, absent a direct threat made to a government official. And suggesting that a government official ought to be drummed from office is not a direct threat, by the way. Not yet, at least.

The rule of thumb never changes. In matters of government, you should never grant power to your friends that you wouldn't be willing to grant to your enemies. And when it comes to "guidelines" for journalism, it's a power that deserves constant and unyielding opposition. Or as our cultural conservative friends suggest:

The Constitution says we all got a right to speak
Say what we want Tip, your argument is weak
Censor records, TV, school books too
And who decides what's right to hear? You?

No comments: