Free speech vs. government power

Published 9:51 am Friday, October 9, 2009

In a free society there will always be a tension between the right of government to protect information that ensures our national security and the right of free speech to report the excesses and potential illegalities of our government.

For most of us this involves choices very difficult to consider. The Bush administration directed NSA to conduct investigations that may have been outside the law, but were designed nevertheless to protect American citizens from those who would use our freedoms again us.

But we are a nation of law, so when a whistleblower comes forward to report, as did Russell Tice, that the NSA was spying on the communications and financial documents of reporters and ordinary Americans, was Russell the bad guy or the good guy?

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Tice was an NSA analyst who came forward to the New York Times in 2005 and reported that the NSA was collecting data on reporters and other Americans in violation of our laws.

He was fired only days after testifying before Congress that the nation needed better protection for whistleblowers.

While Americans of good intent may disagree on the motives of Mr. Tice, do we want his voice silenced, even if it means information claimed to be of national security value is revealed when laws have been broken?

Candidate Obama pledged to support new laws to better protect American journalists like Mr. Tice and their sources.

And many Democratic and Republican Congress people agreed and consequently drafted Senate bill S 448, otherwise known as the Free Flow of Information Act.

You might think that all of this meant that soon reporters and their sources would be protected from being thrown in jail to protect those sources.

You would be wrong, for Washington is not always focused upon the rights of the American people and their access to the secrets of the government that break our laws.

President Obama met with his national security team and advised Congress that this bill he once supported as a candidate he no longer supports as president.

You see, the Justice Department is concerned about a provision in the bill that would allow an impartial federal judge to weigh the balance of national security against the right of the people to know what their government is doing.

The Justice Department currently makes this decision and wishes to continue to hold that power.

But sadly, the Justice Department has, at times, been more in service of a president and a political party than in truly protecting national security.

All too often the decision to slap a “classified” label on government activity is designed to protect the government from embarrassment or violation of law than from honestly protecting national security interests.

With the changes the administration now requests, the bill would have exactly the opposite effect of its original intent.

It would result in the Justice Department, through federal prosecutors, threatening and using jail time to get reporters to reveal their sources.

This would also dry up those very sources, sources that would rightfully fear that their confidence would be broached by jail terms for their whistle-blowing efforts.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Justice Department, and now the President, would prefer to throw journalists in jail rather than protect the right of the American people to know the truth about their government, even when that truth is unflattering or illegal.

Frankly we deserve better decisions from our President and our Justice Department than the standard “You can’t take the truth” argument.

Can anyone in the White House say “Banana Republic?”

Jim Crawford is a contributing columnist for The Tribune and a former educator at Ohio University Southern.