Saturday, July 12, 2008

About that Freedom of the Press...

Libertarians know well that oftimes all that is necessary to restrict an essential freedom is the mere threat of force. So, for instance, to restrict political protests it is necessary only to arbitrarily arrest a handful of people in order to chill the willingness of others to protest - even if you release those you arrest without ever charging them with a crime.

Chris Hedges (Colgate '79) wrote an outstanding piece in the Friday LA Times that explains how the FISA bill passed this week, with its legalization of much of the President's warrantless wiretapping program, could have precisely that effect on the freedom of the press. To be sure, there are many things about which I disagree with Hedges in other contexts; but there should be no doubt that the man is a true journalist who is willing to place himself in harm's way in order to understand his subjects. Hedges writes:

" I contacted someone who was on the ship at the time of the alleged incident and who reportedly had photos. His first question was whether my phone and e-mails were being monitored. What could I say? How could I know? I offered to travel to see him but, frightened of retribution, he refused. I do not know if the man's story is true. I only know that the fear of surveillance made it impossible for me to determine its veracity. Under this law, all those who hold information that could embarrass and expose the lies of those in power will have similar fears. Confidentiality, and the understanding that as a reporter I will honor this confidentiality, permits a free press to function. Take it away and a free press withers and dies."

It is entirely possible - perhaps even likely - that Hedges is being a bit too apocolyptic about the effects of this bill. And in some contexts I disagree that confidentiality is necessary to a free press (I am largely opposed to reporter shield laws). But the thrust of his argument strikes me as deeply important, especially at a time when the "press," such as it exists for most Americans, has reached an almost unimaginable level of vacuity. There are relatively few quality journalists of note left who are capable of reaching a wide swathe of people; the FISA bill, to the extent it permits warrantless eavesdropping on the conversations of journalists, could well terminate a substantial portion of quality investigative foreign affairs journalism. Perhaps the bill is not the end of the world as we know it; but it certainly represents an infringement on civil liberties for a lot more than just "terrists."

Big H/T: Kathy at CFLF, whose work in recent weeks has consoled me over my grief at my friend Kyle's semi-retirement.