Sunday, March 6, 2011

First Amendment Rights and Responsibilities

[from Don Hess]

  • I’ve hosted a group in The Villages called the World Affairs Forum for almost 4 years. Ira and I have had a few conversations and he’s given me the “keys” to contribute occasionally to the conversation here. Thanks Ira for the chance to present what will probably be provocative - and maybe controversial – views.

With regard to my views today, I’ve got to make the disclaimer that I’m no legal scholar or “expert” in any way; just a guy who is interested in being governed fairly and well and being a good citizen of this country and the world.

It seems to me that there are issues today that deserve our serious attention, and that many of them get ignored in the noise of what is euphemistically called “debate”. What I’d like to talk about is HOW we debate and whether that is productive of any real solutions or not.

It has been said that it is a “curse” to live in “interesting” times. The events of the past several months here and around the world lead pretty convincingly to the belief that those are certainly the kind of times we are living in. The curse is in trying to understand them.

In Tunisia and Egypt, in Yemen and Bahrain, in Jordan, Syria and Algeria there have been uprisings against dictators – both “benevolent” rulers and tyrants – in the region. The uprisings no doubt, currently have their origins in the terrible economic conditions of our times. But the historical causes have certainly been oppression and corruption. “Freedom” has been the cry of the protestors …the freedom of Democracy and self-rule.

So we are asking ourselves why this is happening now. Why not decades ago? Some of these tyrants have been in power for three (Mubarack), or four (Khaddafi) decades. In Iran, whose Green Revolution foreshadowed by months the revolutions of today, the Mullahs have been in power for over 30 years since the overthrow of the Shah in 1978. So why now?

I believe the answer is freedom of speech - not that “that” has been granted by the tyrants who maintained their tight control through a monopoly on communications - but that it has simply been taken by the protestors through the power of new technologies – satellite T.V. and cell-phones, the internet, and Facebook - that transcend the powers and borders of state control. And now the citizens of those countries, using the freedom of speech that they’ve ripped from the dictators, are dying in a fight to win the other freedoms of Democracy that we’ve enjoyed and taken for granted for a couple of hundred years since our Revolution.

John Kennedy, in his inaugural speech fifty years ago, declared that “the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forbears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” And in the same speech he also declared that, “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.” (and that we, as a nation, are) “…unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

So today, while others die to gain the liberties we have been assured in our Constitution's Bill of Rights, I would like to look at what is “at issue” in this country of ours with regard to what James Madison declared the “most important of rights” – the 1st Amendment right to Freedom of Speech.

The 1st Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting the 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 to peaceably assemble, and to petition their Government for a redress of grievances.”

Aside from religion, there are two issues here; freedom of speech (personal and press) and freedom of assembly - for the redress of grievances. In the current events of the past few months and weeks we have seen both several efforts to exercise these rights and some challenges to this exercise.

We have seen the exercise of that right in the face of world government secrecy by Julian Assange of Wikileaks. (Please go to "You Tube" and type in "60 Minutes" + "Assange" to see a 30 minute interview with Steve Croft and Julian Assange).

That exercise has been challenged in our country by our Defense Department, State Department and Department of Justice. There are those among our politicians who have called him a traitor and a terrorist and demanded his execution because his actions put in jeopardy those in our military, diplomatic and intelligence services. But the questions he has raised may have really helped bring about the revolutions for democracy in the Middle East by exposing cables between Arab rulers and our State and Defense Departments.

So the questions to be asked about the “issue” of freedom of speech concerning Wikileaks, I believe, are the following.

  • Is government (or corporate) secrecy really covert censorship of the 1st Amendment right in this country?
  • Does revelation of secrets (aside from redacting the names of combatants, CIA “operatives” or their foreign contacts) really pose a danger to our country? If so, why and who should make that decision - the government or the publisher of such secrets? And if so, would more transparency among governments as to their dealings with each other lessen such danger?
  • Are our laws and the enforcement of them adequate to protect “whistleblowers” both outside and inside of government or do we need organizations like Wikileaks to protect them? Does that “whistleblower” have the right to make the determination of “abuse”? If not, who does?
  • If the primary reason for “whistleblowers” supplying documents to Wikileaks is their firm belief that there is not enough internal transparency or external forces (co-opted media) to enforce disclosure, does the “whistleblower” have a duty to force that disclosure through supplying Wikileaks with secret data?
  • Should a “publisher” such as Assange, be free of prosecution if he does not either seek or pay for particular information, but simply makes himself a conduit for those who offer it?

Meanwhile, here at home we have seen the exercise of the 1st Amendment right of assembly for “redress of grievances” against the government actions in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. The same example of peaceful conduct has been observed in these protests as was set in the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. And yet there has been a consideration of attempts to provoke and thwart that good conduct revealed in a “prank” conversation between Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and a Boston blogger. The reason Walker said he decided not to use “troublemakers” as Mubarack did in Egypt was a practical one - not a moral one - the “public” was getting irritated with what had already gone on. Then he shut the capitol to protestors.

Maybe it will seem that it’s a bit of a “stretch” to equate an attempt at union-busting to free speech. But perhaps you will recall that last year the Supreme Court, in a decision called Citizens United, decided that money was equivalent to free speech. I doubt that when the Bill of Rights was written there was a consideration of the enormous power of corporations. All politics and the spread of information about it - through newspapers - was local. Editors were fiercely independent, and there was little chance of corporate control of media.

Today huge corporations have huge budgets to influence elections, and the decision in Citizens United gave them even more opportunity through making it possible for them to fund “ads” against or for any candidate – out of their “general” revenues - through 3rd party organizations. Only a weak provision for “disclosure” of funding sources for these organizations prevents total secrecy about who is “pulling the strings” in any campaign and thwarts investigation into what reason for that is.

So, money is now the power behind the huge “megaphone” available to corporations and unions that wish to heavily influence the electoral process. But, if the unions can be “busted”, and the provision for dues “checkoff” taken from them and therefore their political contributions, then the playing field is heavily, and I believe unfairly tilted toward corporations whose funds come from profits and are paid for by the very consumers who buy their products and who may very well not agree with the corporate political purposes.

Do you suppose that could be a reason for the fight in Wisconsin? Do we suppose that using consumer money is any more “fair” than using “taxpayer” money (an allegation which has proven to be a false conflation with union dues)? Do we want to condone by silent witness the actions of a government of the sort Wisconsin has shown itself to be? Is the Golden Rule not the rule by which we, ourselves, would LIKE to be treated? If we allow others to be treated in an inferior or underhanded way, can we expect more for ourselves and OUR objectives?

The final thing I would like to talk about today is responsibility in return for privilege. Is a right always a “RIGHT” under ANY circumstances without ANY obligation to use it responsibly? Is “hate” speech a responsible use, or an ABUSE of the 1st Amendment right? Does this “right” require “us” to “give up” something (our personal prejudices and bad behavior) in order to get something (freedom to express ourselves fully, usefully and responsibly)?

Let me propose a simple example of what I mean. We are all familiar with the “right” to proceed with a green traffic light. But that “right” denies a person from proceeding who is coming from a different direction and is faced with a “red”. This is a rule that is agreed upon by everyone. It is easy to understand because its violation will produce physical consequences that will ruin somebody’s day.

But it seems to me, that with regard to the equally consequential right of free speech, because it is more esoteric, and the consequences are not so vivid and immediate, that we all now wish to shout “freedom” and ignore the obligation to act responsibly. Here are a few examples:

An assistant Attorney General for the state of Indiana – a high public official with an obligation for leadership in the public eye – recently “tweeted” that he favored the use of “live ammunition” in dealing with the protestors in Wisconsin. He followed this up by declaring in an interview that, “Hell yes, I’m for the use of deadly force.” Imagine THIS in the United States of America which has inveighed heavily very recently AGAINST the use of deadly force in Egypt and Libya. Needless to say, the man was fired. Someone at some level - probably Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels - had the good sense to exercise the responsibility that this official wouldn’t.

In another example of hate speech, at a rally by Paul Broun, a member of Congress in Georgia, an “elderly” man asked, “Who is going to shoot Obama”. Instead of taking a position of moral leadership and rebuking the man, the representative “allowed”, that, yes, “I know there’s a lot of frustration with this president. We’re going to have an election next year.” It took him three days to realize that what he had tacitly condoned for another by his refusal to rebuke, could help create a climate in which the same thing could happen to himself as happened to Gabriel Giffords in Tucson, and which he was condoning by his silence for Obama. At the end of three days his staff issued a disclaimer.

So, I would like to ask whether, by the actions described above in Wisconsin, Indiana and Georgia, we are creating a climate of irresponsibility in this country that will “witness” and “permit the slow undoing of those human rights” which we have been greatly privileged to enjoy and which were paid for by the blood of generations before us as they are being paid for in our time by the blood of those who are fighting for them today in the Middle East.

George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright, journalist, critic, and Nobel Laureate once wrote, “Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve”. I think we all, in this nation, will determine by our present behavior, by our attitudes and behavior toward our “rights”, and by our civility, or lack of it, toward each other, just what kind of government it is that we “deserve” and wish to preserve for future generations.

I hope that we will, in the future, treat our problems with the seriousness and responsibility they deserve and not just give lip service to their solution while each demanding we have our own way. I believe it will be only through courtesy, civility and cooperation that they can be solved. God help us if we don’t realize that and practice those qualities in our discourse and in our politics, and insist on them from our leaders.

Don Hess

1 comment:

Ira Glickstein said...

THANKS Don, for joining us with a provocative Topic. Please stick around to make this Blog more "fair and balanced".

All you said is truthful. I support most of it. But I'll let you know where I think you have gone a bit astray.

1) You credit the current revolts in Muslim North Africa to the advance of technology. Yes, the Internet and cellphones facilitated the opposition. Credit for this advanced technology goes to entrepreneuers and, yes, CORPORATIONS, motivated by PROFIT far more than any desire to free anyone from tyranny. This shows how freemarket capitalism has many favorable side effects, even if they are not overtly desired.

2) Also credit the revolts to the ball that President George W. Bush got rolling by the overthrow of the Taliban and the take down of Saddam Hussein. Once unleashed, that force may roll over the oligarchy ruling Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich emirates. The idea of freeom and democracy is both powerful and dangerous.

3) I'm honest enough to agree that Bush was more motivated by the need to protect our access to reasonably priced petroleum (see my Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL). However, even though we had a number of miscalculations in that operation, at the cost of precious blood and treasure, the side-effects or Bush's actions, supported by large majorities in both political paries, have actually freed more people from domination by religious fanatics and women from being regarded as men's property, than all the grandious speeches of President Kennedy and others.

4) Julian Assange is just as deserving of the rights of a free "press" as the New York Times and other major media. Since I favored the insider who leaked the Climategate emails, and the websites that distributed them, I cannot categorically condemn leakers or the press that exploits leaks. On the other hand, if it turns out that Private Bradley Manning is the source of classified US information, he should face the death penalty because he signed an obligation to protect that material.

As for Assange, if he did not pay for the material, he is probably off the hook, particularly as he has been rather responsible in releasing most with experts at major media. However, you could view him as you would someone who has found a valuable piece of personal property that has been discarded by a thief. If, for example, your home was burglarized and the thief dropped an expensive ring with your name on it and your neighbor found it, I believe he would be under legal obligation to return it.

5) US diplomats make secret deals with oligarchies and tyrants and other dispicable people. Lets face it, there are parts of this real world where representative government has no traction and the choices are our friendly despot or a hostile despot. When Assange releases the details of such shady deals, does that not make it more difficult for our diplomats to do their jobs?

6) Governor Walker needs to reduce state debt. Yes, he also wants to break the union's stranglehold. My father was the union leader in his local Post Office at a time when civil service workers received less compensation than their peers in the private sector, in return for job security. Today, many unionized civil servants, in states where the union owns the dominant party, earn more than their private-sector peers, hardly work, and retire early with big benefits on supposed "disability". This is bankrupting those states and our country and must be reversed.

7) You equate "consumer money" earned by businesses with "taxpayer money" used to pay union dues in a checkoff system. Consumers pay voluntarily in a freemarket exchange for products they need and want. Businesses that fail to deliver quality and price go out of business. Taxpayers pay involuntarily. In union shops, all employees pay involuntarily. Failed governments breed revolt.

Ira Glickstein