Congress highlights First Amendment in wake of tragedy

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., leaders in the 112th Congress endorsed First Amendment freedoms as they worked to restore some normalcy to their legislative agenda.

Newly elected House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, introduced a resolution (H.Res.32) which condemned the attack, praised the bravery of those who responded to the shooting, and honored the victims. The resolution also reaffirmed “the bedrock principle of American democracy and representative government, which is memorialized in the First Amendment of the Constitution and which Representative Gabrielle Giffords herself read in the Hall of the House of Representatives on January 6, 2011, of ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’” (See video of Giffords reading the First Amendment.)

Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., addressed the subject of civility in our public discourse in a speech delivered at the Newseum on Jan. 11. In his remarks, Leahy said, “In a free society, the society that we Americans must always want our country to be, government should not and must not restrain free expression … . After Oklahoma City, after the horrendous attacks on 9/11, we came together, so now again we need to come together … . We must not allow any assault, even this horrendous one, on representative democracy to succeed.”

Sen. Leahy also used the occasion to highlight several issues facing the 112th Congress. Leahy said cybersecurity would be a high priority, and announced plans to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 by extending federal restrictions on wiretaps to include data transmissions on computers. Leahy also said the 112th Congress needed to extend provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire in February. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, introduced a reauthorization bill (H.R.67) on Jan. 5 that would add another year to an extension package passed in 2010.

In other legislative news, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., introduced two bills that would effectively cut federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. H.R.68 would “amend the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit Federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after fiscal year 2013.” Meanwhile, H.R.69 would “prohibit Federal funding of certain public radio programming, to provide for the transfer of certain public radio funds to reduce the public debt, and for other purposes.” NPR’s recent internal investigation into the firing of political analyst Juan Williams and its admission that it poorly handled his dismissal added fuel to a fire that was already burning in the previous legislative session. Lamborn said “there appears to be an ideological slant to some of their activities at NPR … and government doesn’t have business funding any ideology, whether we agree with it or not.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced H.R.96, which is designed to “prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from further regulating the Internet.” Known as the “Internet Freedom Act,” this bill states expressly that regulation of the Internet is the sole prerogative of Congress. Consequently, the bill would strike down rules the FCC adopted last month that are meant to prevent broadband companies from interfering with Internet traffic flowing to their customers.