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Choking Free Speech

Once again, as in 1798 and 1918, there’s a campaign underway suggesting that patriotism and dissent ­ particularly any disagreement with top administration officials ­ are mutually exclusive. Inherent in this suggestion is the premise that patriotism is the purview of government and government always is truthful ­ relegating dissent to “lies and damn lies.”

This is not the first instance when the Constitutional guarantee ­ some would suggest it is an obligation ­ of open and free debate has come under fire. With the U.S. in an undeclared naval war with France (1798-1800), Congress passed the 1798 “Sedition Act” which criminalized the publishing of “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the federal government or government officials, including Congress and the President. What constituted prohibited “writing” was left to juries acting under the “direction” of courts. Twenty-five newspaper editors were fined or imprisoned under the act before it expired in 1801.

The 1918 Sedition Act, an amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act, was specifically restricted to wartime. But like its eighteenth century namesake, its underlying premise was that government owned truth, that “whoevershall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flagor encourage resistance to the United Statesor encourage or advocate any curtailment of [wartime] production.” More than 1,500 people were arrested under this act before it was repealed in 1922. The most well known, Eugene Debs, was sentenced to ten years in jail for advising young men to carefully consider whether they should comply with the draft.

Suggestions that a new draft will be required to sustain the U.S. force levels for Iraq that the Pentagon expects to field is at the heart of the contemporaneous campaign to undermine full, free, and open discussion of issues associated with the occupation of Iraq. A number of highly reputable policy organizations and think tanks say the U.S. military today is overextended and that it is able to meet all its commitments only by drawing deeply on National Guard and Reserve units and recalling Individual Ready Reservists.

Stresses on the forces are quite public. Individuals whose service commitments have expired are being kept in uniform through “stop-loss” orders that are tantamount to a “backdoor draft.” The Army has stripped its premier “opposition forces” from its two main training bases for duty in Iraq, and the Selective Service reportedly is updating contingencies for a “specialist” draft centered on health care workers.

Prudently responding to this situation, organizations concerned with peace, voting turnout, and youth issues such as conscientious objection and the draft have called for full debate on conscription. They are not the only ones concerned. The House of Representatives voted against a conscription bill earlier this month. In the second and third presidential debates, the subject came up. And it has subsequently been mentioned by both candidates on the campaign trail, with Senator Kerry saying President Bush will be forced to restart a draft in 2005 and the President adamantly denying any such plans.

This, all part of presidential politics in 2004, is the type of open exchange to which the public is entitled and in which it has the right and obligation to participate to clarify the positions of the candidates. However, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie, apparently thinks otherwise. In what amounts to a “cease and desist” letter to the nonpartisan “Rock the Vote,” Gillespie demanded that the organization halt all discussion about a draft. For him, once the President speaks, just like the old E.F. Hutton commercial, everyone else is suppose to maintain respectful silence and abjure any and all questioning.

Mr. Gillespie, like any other U.S. resident, is absolutely entitled to hold and to trumpet this view. But he is attempting to intimidate those who would question their government and their President by threatening legal and regulatory (IRS) action against organizations like “Rock the Vote” simply because they exercise the public’s right (and its duty) to examine the views and rationales behind the positions of the presidential candidates on all issues ­ particularly issues that have been part of the campaign.

The essence of democracy lies in making informed choices about those who aspire to govern. Informed choice is impossible in the absence of competing information streams on which to judge the promises and commitments of candidates and parties. These competing streams come through official, unofficial, public, and private sources ­ print, electronic, verbal. It is not dissent that is unpatriotic but intentionally silencing or threatening action that could effectively silence free and open airing of all sides of an issue.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, dissenting in Abrams vs. United States (1919), provided a succinct defenses of the value of free and open debate and dissent: “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas ­ that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org

 

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