Free speech for a president and protesters

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Editor’s note: Gene Policinski is substituting for Paul McMasters for this week’s column.

WASHINGTON — The nation’s attention rightfully was focused on what President Bush said Jan. 10, speaking from the White House library about his policy on Iraq.

But even as Americans tuned into the president’s speech, there were those – from Capitol Hill to television studios to Washington, D.C., sidewalks – expressing their disagreement. Some television reports even had it that there were faint sounds of protesters audible at times during the president’s remarks. But whether or not that particular background sound could be heard, defenders and critics, supporters and protesters had one thing in common: They were visible examples of the First Amendment at work.

Free speech sometimes gets a bad rap these days, from those annoying spam messages filling up your e-mail queue to objectionable Internet content to, well, rap (music) itself. We often seem consumed with determining the limits and boundary lines of free speech.

Our debates often focus on questions such as, Should a Virginia teacher be fired because in his off-time he “creates art” using his backside? Or does that unique approach to creativity deserve to be protected free expression? Can a high school principal in Cincinnati rip a young sportswriter’s column from the pages of the school newspaper just because it contains digs at the football team? And there are the “T-shirt wars” — over what messages or images are appropriate or disruptive — periodically raging in schools and even courtrooms.

But as Bush spoke of important things, that faint background noise of protest carried its own message: of the presence, the power and the purpose of the rights of Americans to speak freely, to gather in groups and to peaceably petition the government for change.

Of course, the audience for the president’s remarks already was reflective of how intertwined the basic American freedoms of the First Amendment are in the daily life of our nation, even if in the background. There was the new Democratic-majority Congress, elected in part because of the outcome of free and open debate over our involvement in Iraq. There were the American people, who thanks to the reports of a free press have been tracking the successes and failures of administration policy. There were the experts who dissected Bush’s speech point by point. And there were the bloggers, including those who praised the president’s resolve and decision to send more troops and one who said Bush looked “scared.”

In none of this, and properly so, was the First Amendment the actual focus. Nonetheless, this ability to have a national discussion without fear of government control or retribution is a remarkable, essential part of the way the United States functions.

This is not to say all is just fine with the state of our basic freedoms, particularly when it comes to knowing what our government is doing. In just the past few days:

  • There was a report of a quiet agreement last year between the White House and Secret Service that the records of visitors to the “people’s house” will not be open to the public.

  • Only after pressure from a newspaper did San Mateo, Calif., county health officials recently identify four senior-living facilities with virus outbreaks.

  • There were reports of new efforts to restrict or eliminate the public information consumers can get about subjects ranging from the environment to new cars to safety data.

  • Journalists in several court cases still stand to be the only persons involved who will do time in jail, for failing to identify news sources — even when, some maintain, officials already know the identity of the source.

    But for just a moment today, do something that most Americans don’t do in a year, if ever: Take quiet pride in that moment the other night when the First Citizen was exercising his right to speak to the nation even as a group of other citizens in direct opposition to his views were safely exercising that same right, only a short distance away, to speak to him.

    Gene Policinski is executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail:

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