The week the First Amendment was made for

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

This is the week the First Amendment was made for.

Those of us who regularly work on freedom of expression issues are sometimes hard-pressed to convey the urgency of protecting these core freedoms. Concepts like freedom of speech, faith and assembly can seem abstract. Many view freedom of the press as just a news media issue. And few recognize the role of petition in shaping our nation.

But this week we learned that the Internal Revenue Service used its power to impede conservative political organizations with “patriot” and “tea party” in their names. They’ve even targeted groups that try to educate the public about constitutional issues. (We’ll try not to take that personally.)

Days later, we discovered that the U.S. Department of Justice had seized the records of phone calls made from 20 lines used by about 100 Associated Press journalists.  There was no advance notice to the AP and no communication with the news organization beyond a brief e-mail sent on Friday.

In a letter objecting to the records seizure, AP CEO Gary Pruitt called it “a massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the newsgathering activities of The Associated Press.”

There’s still no way of knowing exactly what the Department of Justice sought in its probe of government leaks, but there’s little question that the subpoena was overly broad and clumsily-handled. News media organizations across the country have echoed Pruitt’s criticism.

The news this week gives us a glimpse into a very different America. Imagine a nation in which a government agency with the power to tax every citizen can play favorites, rewarding or punishing people for their political views. And consider a country in which no American would dare call a news organization about government misconduct for fear of being identified in a dragnet.

That’s a chilling and perhaps overly dark vision. Yet the news of the week is a sobering reminder that government bureaucracies can’t be counted on for self-restraint. That’s why the first generation of Americans insisted on a Bill of Rights, including the guarantee of freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

When the government goes too far, we have the freedom to raise our voices and say “Not so fast.” That’s exactly what we’ve seen throughout the news media and social media the last few days.

Our real protection against the abuse of government power is vigilance by the press and public, and steadfast support for the freedoms we hold dear.


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