Let's try not to make this political, but... perhaps a little refresher on the First Amendment is in order.
The news in the past ten days has been full of reports of the Justice Department targeting journalists with subpoenas and/or, worse, characterizing their investigative work as "crimes." First came a report that the email logs of some 20 Associated Press employees had been targeted, and then, on May 20, came the report that the actual contents of electronic messages of three Fox News staffers had been accessed by Justice officials. One Fox reporter, James Rosen, was specifically - and, by all reasonable legal interpretations, wrongly - accused of criminal activity by the Justice Department for the act of seeking information on North Korean political and military activity.
Memo to the Justice Department: That's what investigative reporters do: They investigate. In fact, even in cases in which a government employee is forbidden from releasing certain classified information, it is not illegal for the reporter to publish it - much less try to acquire the information in the first place. That's exactly what Rosen did; indeed it's what all good reporters do: He worked to develop a source in order to gain information that would be valuable to the public he serves.
In another day and age, such reporting might win a Pulitzer Prize; at the very least, such a pursuit would make him a hero of the rest of the press corps, which would scream bloody murder at attempts to stifle him. (Example given: great acclaim for New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan's work in publishing the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971. ) One need not condone all attempts to publicize truly life-sensitive information to recognize that, at the very least, it is crucial for government to follow rigorous procedures whenever even contemplating censorship or investigation.
This isn't just about the media wanting to be coddled. This is part of an increasingly frequent battle between the government and private entities about the breadth and meaning of the Constitution's First Amendment. That amendment, first in importance in addition to being first in order of place in the document, protects freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of the people to petition government. For years, the outer limits of these freedoms often have been matters of controversy - there's no free speech to falsely yell "fire" in a crowded theatre, for instance, or to publish libelous statements - but the basic, bedrock principles remained inviolable.
But now it's not just freedom of the press that seems threatened by a government that some people fear is becoming too powerful. As I've written here before, freedom of religion also has come increasingly under attack. Fortunately, the federal courts so far seem to be keeping government in its place more often than not - and the Supreme Court in a strong, unanimous decision ruled that churches and faith-based institutions do indeed enjoy First Amendment protections against government interference in their choices of "ministers" (and other employees who perform faith-related functions).
Alas, (moving back to free speech), one Supreme Court Justice actually has written that speech rights are to be "doled out" by government, presumably at the government's discretion. And a recent Alabama columnist even opined, in admiration but obvious confusion, that "governments g[i]ve ... rights and demanded obligations." This is precisely backwards: The American creed always has been that we already own our rights, and we demand obligations from government to help secure those pre-existing rights from outside attack.
The rights themselves, according to the Declaration of Independence and dozens of local and state resolutions across the original thirteen colonies in 1775-76, are "endowed" upon us by a loving Creator. Legitimate government can no more abridge those rights than it can order the sun to rise in the western sky.
That's why any protestations against the seizure of the records from the Associated Press or the emails from Fox News are not "political," in the modern sense of being cynically calculated for personal or partisan advantage, but rather constitutional and foundational, in the sense of resting on the essential buildings blocks of a society of ordered liberty.
It's also why the battle against insurance "mandates" for abortifacients drugs, or against government questions about the specific content of prayers, should be seen not as a partisan matter but as a matter of simple right and wrong - with "right" residing in the fight against government invasiveness.
As long as the First Amendment, rightly understood, remains sacrosanct, our society can hope to remain free. If that amendment is abridged, tyranny will surely ensue.
About the Contributor
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.
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