Monday, September 24, 2012

Bonanza Column 251 - The FBI and Free Speech

In the past couple of weeks’ columns we’ve been looking at the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression, particularly freedom of speech. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, has always seemed interesting to me. The Constitution, as originally adopted in 1789 addressed the structure and function of the Federal Government and its relationship to the States, but was thought by many to be deficient in its protection of individual rights. The Bill of Rights, introduced by James Madison immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, was aimed at rectifying that omission.
The primacy of freedom of expression among the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights reflects the degree to which this freedom was suppressed under British rule. It was a remarkable guarantee then, and remains unusual today in its scope. Even in the freest of the rest of the free world, freedom of speech is not absolute; restrictions may be loose, but they are there nonetheless. Here all expression is protected and any attempt to restrict it is subject to the most rigorous scrutiny before it can be instituted. Error, if it occurs, is meant to be on the side of greater, not less restriction.
As a result, as we’ve noted, if you are seriously committed to this most foundational of American freedoms, you have to be willing to tolerate expression that is repugnant to you – the cost of my freedom to speak is my having to tolerate yours no matter how objectionable I find it. To again ( (mis)quote Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Actually, while this quote is always attributed to Voltaire, it was probably said by a biographer of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall).
Because of the breadth of this guarantee we Americans have never been 100% comfortable with freedom of speech. We are fine with it for expression we find agreeable or irrelevant to what we care about, but less so to the degree that what is said or written or depicted diverges from what we hold dear, and some even go so far as to try to find reasons to deny the freedom to those with whom they disagree. The FBI, particularly under the long reign of J. Edgar Hoover, was notorious for collecting dossiers on those whose speech they (read “Hoover”) found objectionable, whether it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, or anti-war protestors during the Vietnam Era.
Recently, here in Nevada, we have seen what may be a recurrence of this Hooveresque behavior on the part of the Bureau. According to an Associated Press report, the ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what federal agents reported learning about members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Northern Nevada and the “No Bear Hunt” group. The FBI would neither confirm nor deny that they are investigating those opposed to the Nevada bear hunt. This seems to be based on some heated exchanges at meetings of the Washoe County Wildlife Advisory Board and the Nevada Wildlife Commission in March, which included a County Board member saying he didn’t want to hear from the Native Americans because he didn’t want to “hear of bows and arrows,” a comment for which he later apologized. In the FOIA request, the ACLU cited reports by media, community organizations, and the public that the FBI had been “engaged in a deliberate plan to harass and intimidate those who speak out against the hunting of bears in northern Nevada.”
One could easily wax satirical about the FBI and the right to arm bears, but what is going on here? No threats have been made, the AIM is not Al Qaeda, and despite some history of militancy on the national level, the Nevada AIM branch has a different outlook and objectives than the national organization. Humor aside, this seems to represent a continuing effort by the FBI to suppress any expression they don’t like – J. Edgar Hoover’s ghost seems to still roam the halls, or at least the minds of the FBI.
To paraphrase Jefferson, the price of freedom of speech seems to be eternal vigilance, including watching those whose job it is to protect that very freedom.

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