Preserved within the Bill of Rights are the freedoms that are guaranteed by more far-reaching means than any other land’s. The First Amendment forbids the abridgement of the freedoms of speech and press.
In their zeal to protect national security, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and some members of Congress — including U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., are forgetting that.
Hearst Newspapers reported Friday that Renzi told the House Intelligence Committee that America’s battle against terrorism has been weakened by the reporting of details of classified intelligence-gathering.
Renzi said he believed “the attorney general and the president of this nation should use” all laws at their disposal to check journalists, Hearst reported.
And the Associated Press reported this week that Gonzales said he believes journalists can be prosecuted for publishing classified information — and he gave national security as his reason. ‘‘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,’’ the AP reported Gonzales said last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
The First Amendment does indeed prevail if the secret activity reported on is illegal. Secret illegal wiretapping will go on unchecked, for example, so long as it is not allowed to be exposed.
When the Bill of Rights is “trumped” by the government, illegal secret conduct stays secret, which is to this republic’s woe far more than a particular case that a federal prosecutor can’t pursue.
Certainly journalists must weigh the harm that can be done by publishing what they know. And while some journalists wrongfully cross ethical boundaries and should be held accountable for it, they are in the minority.
Luckily, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., was more tempered in his remarks. Hearst reported Hoekstra saying he was “not yet willing to go so far as to advoocate the criminal prosecution of those who publish classified information.”
Prosecuting reporters for publishing leaks from government officials will instill fear into journalists who know they have the truth, but will hesitate to tell it.
Bipartisan legislation, called the Free Flow of Information Act of 2006, was introduced in Congress this month. It would give journalists a shield from having to disclose confidential sources to federal authorities, but also provides important exceptions to that shield.
Such a law would do a better job of balancing the public’s right to know with legitimate national security concerns than frustrated pronouncements from the nation’s top law-enforcement official and members of Congress that only try to limit the exercise of the freedoms Americans have given their lives defending.