During the American Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus three times all under the pretense that the government needed to “keep the peace” and “to protect its military operations.” As a result, dozens of journalists in the North were imprisoned for reporting about various military and executive activities.
The Espionage Act of 1917 was promoted by then-President Woodrow Wilson, who feared any widespread dissent during the Great War “constituted a real threat to an American victory.” If a publication were found guilty of violating the act, it would lose its mailing privilege. An estimated 75 newspapers lost their mailing privileges during America’s involvement in World War I.
Today, not only have reporters from the New York Times been imprisoned for refusing to divulge information that would compromise the privacy of informants, there is a small, yet growing movement among the neoconservatives which seeks to imprison all journalists who aren’t "with the program.”
For instance, Senator Jim Bunning has recently gone on record calling for editors at the Times to be tried for treason. Why? Because the curmudgeon editors are supposedly putting the freedoms of Americans in jeopardy; for publishing the fact that the government is secretly checking the bank records of Americans.
While one of the original clauses of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous and malicious” writings about the government and its officials, the Times is not lying or making up false stories; they have merely reported the policies and programs being carried out by the administration. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has even publicly defended the domestic spying program involving the illegal use of wiretaps, as well as the use of those wiretaps to secretly arrest, try, and imprison suspected terrorists a fact that the ACLU was not allowed to divulge.
Other historical precedents include the Watergate break-in and the Pentagon Papers. At the time, the White House attempted to censor any information regarding either event. In fact, regarding the leaked Pentagon Papers, President Nixon reportedly said “people have gotta be put to the torch for this sort of thing…” and “let’s get the son-of-a-bitch in jail.” And the politically-controlled Justice Department tried to place an injunction on several newspapers, such as the Times, in order to prevent them from publishing the Papers. However, in New York Times Co. v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper’s right under the First Amendment to print the material.
We Report and Decide
Last year, political commentator Bill O’Reilly said on his radio show with regards to the Air America Radio network:
"Everybody got it? Dissent, fine; undermining, you’re a traitor. Got it? So, all those clowns over at the liberal radio network, we could incarcerate them immediately. Will you have that done, please? Send over the FBI and just put them in chains, because they, you know, they’re undermining everything and they don’t care, couldn’t care less."
Columnist Ann Coulter, in her aptly titled book Treason, wrote on how dissent and criticism of the administrations policies equated to traitorous acts. In addition she has suggested that Timothy McVeigh should have bombed the Times offices instead of the Federal building in Oklahoma City.
Would these pundits have had the same objections to shining light on the omnipresent Total Information Awareness program? What about unearthing information on the Iran-Contra affair, investigating the controversial Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, or covering the Whitewater controversy incidentally first reported in the New York Times?
If polls are any guide, the fight over free speech will continue to be a constant battle. A recent poll conducted by Pew Research noted that 50% of Americans surveyed believe that newspapers harmed the nation “by exposing the bank monitoring program.” Yet at the same time, 65% of those surveyed believe that “the information is worth knowing.”
In the end, regardless of political appointment or alignment, the gatekeepers will have a harder time preventing the dissemination of information in the future due in part to the lower barriers to entry in online publishing.
Analysis by Tim Swanson, with editing by Ray Daugherty, for Antiwar.com