The existence of America’s Constitutionally protected free press has come full circle. The Barack Obama Administration’s disdain for whistle-blowers, combined with politicians’ calls for attacking journalists who publicize information provided by leakers in the interest of “national security,” suggests the Nation has reached an age in which its leaders feel comfortable publicly advocating for a total state monopoly on information.
In February, before the Presidential Administration found itself fielding a barrage of scandals, Vice President Joe Biden decried conservative alternative media for shouting down mainstream efforts to soften public perception of Congressional gun-control efforts. The Vice President called on the Nation’s “legitimate news media” to discredit any grass-roots information initiatives that have the potential to derail government propaganda.
“We’re counting on all of you, the legitimate news media, to cover these [gun policy] discussions because the truth is that times have changed,” Biden said.
Then, we likened Biden’s proclamation that alternative media was spreading a bunch of “malarkey” to British efforts to quash Colonial America’s first multipage newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick, which was first printed by Richard Pierce and edited by Benjamin Harris in Boston on Sept. 25, 1690.
The British efforts stemmed from information included in the publication that stirred up public grievances against the overseas rulers of the new lands. Upon shutting down the publication, government officials announced: “The Governour and Council having had the perusal of said Pamphlet, and finding that therein contained Reflections of a very high nature: As also sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports, do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet, and Order that the same be Suppressed and called in; strickly forbidden any person or persons for the future to Set forth any thing in Print without License first obtained from those that are or shall be appointed by the Government to grant the same.”
Following the American Revolution, the Nation’s Founders sought to ensure that the public would forevermore be protected in its right to speak — rightly or wrongly — against government actions, with the inclusion of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press have, for the most part, remained sacrosanct in the United States in the eyes of the Nation’s highest court, which has sparingly limited certain forms of “at risk speech” (calling for violent actions, immediately jeopardizing national security or knowingly publishing libelous content) in some cases.
There have also been legislative actions to suspend free speech in certain moments of national or local distress via sedition acts on the Federal and State levels, most famously during the Nation’s Civil War and during World War I and World War II.
Currently, there is no law in the United States barring the publication of classified information provided by whistle-blowers; and no journalist has ever faced prosecution for doing so. But, citing a supposed grave threat to national security produced by recent whistle-blower revelations (Bradley Manning’s military document dump and the recent revelation of the National Security Agency’s communication surveillance dragnet), some lawmakers are seeking to change that.
Speaking about the NSA leak on CNN earlier this week, Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) said that reporters who published whistle-blower documents should be pursued with the same vigor by government prosecutors as the actual whistle-blowers.
“If they willingly knew that this was classified information, I think action should be taken, especially on something of this magnitude,” King said.
“I think on something of this magnitude, there is an obligation both moral but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something that would so severely compromise national security.”
King’s logic is out of line with the Constitution on many levels, most jarringly when one attempts to consider what the lawmaker must believe the intention of including a free press in the Nation’s Founding document must’ve been. He associates the recent leaks with a national security threat because he is being told, by the very people under public scrutiny stemming from the revelations, that revealing their Constitutionally questionable practices produces a threat.
King is not alone in his view, but he is definitely challenged by public perception — and even among his Congressional peers. For many observers, it’s a little puzzling when a government “for the people, by the people” wants to shred whistle-blowers and assume control of public information outlets — if only through threat of reprisal for pulling back the curtain — anytime an issue presented by the press makes the public question whose best interest is being tended.
For some, a more appropriate proclamation from government officials who have decried the NSA leak — and media’s involvement — would be: “This leak severely threatens the supremacy of the Federal bureaucracy.” Or, “This leak severely threatens government’s ability to keep dissent, even in its most benign forms, in check.”
Many Americans simply cannot go along with King and others citing a threat to “national security,” which should mean a threat to the well-being of the Nation’s citizens — at least not so very soon after two foreign-born terrorists were able to blow up a rice cooker, after months of planning and public demonstration of their own radicalization, at the Boston Marathon.
Considering that attack, it could be argued that the true threat to national security is how ineffectual NSA surveillance must be, which begs a question: What the hell is the government doing with all of the information it collects if it isn’t using it to catch real terrorists?
And, in a Nation that once prided itself on requiring agents of the state to shoulder the burden of proof in justifying that their actions are warranted, other scandals — such as the explosive Internal Revenue Service abuses that are now public knowledge — probably aren’t helping America’s bureaucrats make a strong case for more control.
Looking back to the original minds behind the Constitutional guarantee of press freedom, a definite theme is recognizable: America’s Founders were not so naïve as to think that a free press would always be in the best interest of government affairs. In fact, Thomas Jefferson held a view that was quite the opposite.
Writing from Paris in 1787 to Edward Carrington, whom he sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788, Jefferson discussed the importance of newspapers and why, even when the free press inhibits government ability, it must not be suppressed:
I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.
Based on his remarks, it’s hard to doubt that Jefferson would hold steadfast in support of today’s whistle-blowers and the journalists who have publicized their leaks. Of course, if Jefferson were in America today, it’s probably also safe to assume that he would have already secured himself a spot on more than a few government watch lists.