Monday, May 22, 2006

Assault on the Foundation of a Republican Form of Government

Attorney General Gonzalez, are we really going to start jailing journalists for the content of their speech?

On the talk show, when asked if journalists could be prosecuted for publishing classified information, Gonzales responded, "There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility."

He was referring to the 1917 Espionage Act, which made it a crime for an unauthorized person to receive national defense information and transmit it to others.


The government cannot simply imprison the press for publishing what it does not want to have published. As the Founder's understood, speech that reveals the government's criminal activities is particularly valuable to a well-functioning Republic. Attempting to criminalize speech about government lawbreaking by labeling it harmful to national security should roundly be considered repugnant to all citizens of this Republic. Right?
Yesterday, Gonzales said, "I understand very much the role that the press plays in our society, the protection under the First Amendment we want to promote and respect . . . but it can't be the case that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity."

As for the Times, he said, "As we do in every case, it's a case-by-case evaluation about what the evidence shows us, our interpretation of the law. We have an obligation to enforce the law and to prosecute those who engage in criminal activity."


Armando has compiled a helpful history lesson for the Attorney General, starting with Justice Hugo Black in New York Times v. United States (the Pentagon Papers case):
In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.

. . . [T]he Government argues in its brief that in spite of the First Amendment, "[t]he authority of the Executive Department to protect the nation against publication of information whose disclosure would endanger the national security stems from two interrelated sources: the constitutional power of the President over the conduct of foreign affairs and his authority as Commander-in-Chief."

In other words, we are asked to hold that despite the First Amendment's emphatic command, the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Judiciary can make laws enjoining publication of current news and abridging freedom of the press in the name of "national security." . . . To find that the President has "inherent power" to halt the publication of news by resort to the courts would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make "secure." No one can read the history of the adoption of the First Amendment without being convinced beyond any doubt that it was injunctions like those sought here that Madison and his collaborators intended to outlaw in this Nation for all time.

The word "security" is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged. This thought was eloquently expressed in 1937 by Mr. Chief Justice Hughes - great man and great Chief Justice that he was - when the Court held a man could not be punished for attending a meeting run by Communists.
The greater the importance of safeguarding the community from incitements to the overthrow of our institutions by force and violence, the more imperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means. Therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundation of constitutional government.
Next up, Justice Brennan in Times v. Sullivan:
Mr. Justice Brandeis, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 -376, gave the principle its classic formulation:
Those who won our independence believed . . . that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law - the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials. See Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 ; De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353

. . .[T]he lesson to be drawn from the great controversy over the Sedition Act of 1798, 1 Stat. 596, which first crystallized a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment. See Levy, Legacy of Suppression (1960), at 258 et seq.; Smith, Freedom's Fetters (1956), at 426, 431, and passim. That statute made it a crime, punishable by a $5,000 fine and five years in prison, "if any person shall write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress. . ., or the President . . ., with intent to defame . . . or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States." . . . [T]he Act was vigorously condemned as unconstitutional in an attack joined in by Jefferson and
Madison. In the famous Virginia Resolutions of 1798, the General Assembly of Virginia resolved that it
doth particularly protest against the palpable and alarming infractions of the Constitution, in the two late cases of the `Alien and Sedition Acts,' passed at the last session of Congress . . . . [The Sedition Act] exercises . . . a power not delegated by the Constitution, but, on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto - a power which, more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm, because it is levelled against the right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right." 4 Elliot's Debates, supra, pp. 553-554.


Madison prepared the Report in support of the protest. His premise was that the Constitution created a form of government under which "The people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty."

The structure of the government dispersed power in reflection of the people's distrust of concentrated power, and of power itself at all levels. This form of government was "altogether different" from the British form, under which the Crown was sovereign and the people were subjects. "Is it not natural and necessary, under such different circumstances," he asked, "that a different degree of freedom in the use of the press should be contemplated?" Id., pp. 569-570. Earlier, in a debate in the House of Representatives, Madison had said: "If we advert to the nature of Republican Government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people." 4 Annals of Congress, p. 934 (1794). Of the exercise of that power by the press, his Report said: "In every state, probably, in the Union, the press has exerted a freedom in canvassing the merits and measures of public men, of every description, which has not been confined to the strict limits of the common law. On this footing the freedom of the press has stood; on this foundation it yet stands . . . ." 4 Elliot's Debates, supra, p. 570. The right of free public discussion of the stewardship of public officials was thus, in Madison's view, a fundamental principle of the American form of government.

SusanG has quite a bit more to add here, including this quote from Justice Black in New York Times v. United States:
In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly.
Frankly, this is not a close call. This one should not be an open question for any Attorney General.



Update:

The ACS Blog has an excerpt of an interesting submission on this topic from Professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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