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Practice What You Preach: Obama Preaches Free Speech to the UN

Jesselyn Radack, September 26, 2012

This post originally appeared in Radack's Daily Kos blog.

 

President Obama gave an eloquent speech to the UN yesterday. Obama spoke about democracy, freedom on the First Amendment:

Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.

Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.

We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities. We do so because, given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

He encouraged those with power to avoid the temptation to silence dissent:

In other words, true democracy, real freedom is hard work. Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissidents.

Obama's words would be more inspiring if the government better practiced what Obama preaches. The Obama administration has presided over the unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to prosecute so-called "leakers," who are usually whistleblowers. The Espionage Act prosecutions, which the Obama campaign has highlighted as "tough national security policy" have an enormous chilling effect on the freedoms of speech and the press, the very freedoms Obama tells the U.N. are "enshrined" in the Constitution.

Because the Obama administration has waged a war on whistleblowers using the heavy-handed, and ill-suited Espionage Act, Obama's words yesterday rang hollow to those of us struggling to understand why a President who preaches free speech so eloquently to other countries fails to protect it here at home.

The Espionage Act prosecutions are not the only evidence of free speech hypocrisy on the government's part.

The State Department instructed all employees to avoid looking at Wikileaks documents on their personal time – certainly a crackdown on the marketplace of ideas.

The Defense Department issued a memo about whether or not employees are permitted to buy, read, and discuss Matt Bissonette's bestselling book (No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden) on the Osama Bin Laden raid.

WaPo reported on the Defense Department memo, which mandated the employees:

  • “are free to purchase NED [No Easy Day];
  • “are not required to store NED in [secure] containers . . . unless classified statements in the book have been identified;
  • “shall not discuss potentially classified and sensitive unclassified information with persons who do not have an official need to know and an appropriate security clearance;
  • “who possess either firsthand knowledge of, or suspect information within NED to be classified or sensitive, shall not publically speculate or discuss potentially classified or sensitive unclassified information outside official . . .channels. . .;
  • “are prohibited from using unclassified government computer systems to discuss potentially classified or sensitive contents of NED, and [no] online discussions via social networking or media sites” about classified stuff “that may be contained in NED.”

First, it is chilling in and of itself that the Defense Department has any say in what books its employees choose to read on their personal time. Since when does the government need to issue a memo authorizing employees to buy a book?

Moreover, the Defense Department's memo is confusing at best as the government refuses to say what, if any, classified information is actually in Bissonette's book. WaPo writer Al Kamen summed up the conclusion employees are likely to draw from the memo:

Hard to say what the “potentially” classified stuff is. So, until they tell you what the bad stuff is, it’s safe to buy NED and even to read it but don’t underline it and don’t talk about it — except to say “cool book, great cover,” stuff like that.

The chilling effect on speech is obvious, and no doubt, some employees will stay away from the book altogether to avoid any potential hassle. Perhaps that is precisely the point.

These are not the kinds of free speech-chilling actions Obama encouraged other nations to take during his U.N. speech. Obama's powerful and moving words are right, and it is long past time the government's actions adhere more closely to the ideals the President preaches.

 

Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.