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Free Speech Under Siege

Civil Liberties and the Press

Image by Cartoonistarif: CC BY 2.0

The protections guaranteed to Americans by the First Amendment of the Constitution are under assault, and they have been for some time. In 1947, ten Hollywood writers and filmmakers were summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged ties to the Communist Party. The artists were unconstitutionally summoned and upon refusal to testify, were held in contempt of Congress in what boiled down to red scare kabuki theatre. While the U.S. constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the right to speech, dissent, and press freedom from government intrusion, these artists were deprived of that right. This policing of thought would prove to have lasting consequences, the evolution of which can be seen today.

While much has changed since the days of the second red scare and McCarthyism, the tactics of suppressing dissent and press freedoms have remained effective. Similar to the days of the Hollywood Ten, now anyone who doesn’t follow the neoliberal corporate line or objects to the national security state is slandered, dismissed, or unjustly persecuted. Rather than being unconstitutionally hauled in before a McCarthyistic hearing, civil liberties are quelled by the U.S. national security state talking heads, a dominant corporate media infrastructure, and unaccountable social media corporations.

Ultimately, for the press and dissent, First Amendment protections and freedom of thought are heading down a dangerous, authoritarian path. Only solidarity through the ordinary banding together can preserve the few civil liberties that remain and maintain democratic values. Pushing back on state and corporate control over permissible speech must become a priority for the left and those that wish to preserve some semblance of democratic norms and principles.

Assaulting The Press And Dissent

In recent years, the slow roll to repression heightened during the Obama administration and comes as the media environment becomes growingly consolidated in the hands of a few corporations. Under the Obama administration, more whistleblowers who leaked information to the press were prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all other presidents combined. Some of those whistleblowers leaked truthful, substantiated information and materials to award-winning Australian journalist and Wikileaks publisher, Julian Assange.

While the Obama administration set the precedent, the Trump administration has furthered encroachments against press freedoms and whistleblowers while heightening bonafide fascist rhetoric condemning the press as “enemies of the people.” Under Trump and the politicized Department of Justice (DOJ), Assange now stands as the first member of the press to face federal charges under the Espionage Act as a non-American — 18 to be exact.

Assange was indicted in May 2019 by DOJ for allegedly “illegally obtaining, receiving, and disclosing classified information.” The documents and cables published — some were declassified — exposed U.S. war crimes and other breaches of human rights by the American military machine and national security apparatus. On June 24, 2020, DOJ furthered allegations citing that Assange and Chelsea Manning — an Obama-era whistleblower — “conspired with anonymous hackers.”

Since 2012, Assange had been held up in Ecuador’s London embassy after applying for political asylum and received citizenship with the South American government. Seven years later, in 2019, British law enforcement arrested Assange in the embassy after Ecuadorian President, Lenín Moreno, gave the nod. Critics of Moreno, including his former Foreign Minister, alleged that Ecuador’s former head of state nullified Assange’s political status and citizenship to receive a $4.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It’s noteworthy that the IMF has significant ties to Western capital and is headed up by the U.S. government.

Since his arrest, Assange has been placed in and out of solitary confinement in a British penitentiary. After 22 days on trial, he now stands to be extradited to the U.S. from the U.K., in what has amounted to the show trial of the century.

After his arrest, the Federal Bureau of Investigations seized legally privileged materials from Assange and his defense team. A Spanish court is currently hearing a case on surveillance of those close to Assange when he was hunkered down in the embassy. One of Assange’s top attorneys had his laptop stolen in 2017 — curiously, journalist Charles Glass, who has critically covered the trial, had his laptop stolen as well. The defense was also denied more time to prepare for the case, while U.K. and U.S. prosecutors have been granted over ten years to prepare.

The defense’s witnesses have been limited in testifying on his behalf, including being denied the adequate time to properly provide the political context behind his imprisonment. Ironically, the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty doesn’t allow for extradition for political reasons, which all the charges Assange faces fall under. Due to COVID-19, testimony via electronic call-in has been labored and fuzzy. The presiding judge has ruled that Assange must be kept in a glass cage in the back of the courtroom, making it impossible to communicate with his defense team during the trial. His mental and physical health have rapidly deteriorated.

There is little coverage of the trial outside of independent media and journalists like ShadowProof’s Kevin Gosztola. Corporate media has essentially blacked out all coverage or been uncritical, allowing talking heads from the alphabet soup of U.S. intelligence agencies and national security apparatus to regurgitate talking points and smear Assange. Some of those talking heads — like Mike Pompeo — have claimed that he along with Wikileaks are intelligence assets, which is unfounded. Disgustingly enough, corporate journalists and prominent media figures have also cheered on Assange’s extradition, parroting many of the politically motivated intelligence state’s talking points, rather than standing up for press freedoms.

If extradited, Assange likely faces 175 years and further torture in a U.S. supermax prison. Assange has not seen a fair trial in the U.K. and will not face a fair trial in the U.S. with the seemingly unlimited resources and time of the state to prepare for trial. His extradition would be a major defeat for First Amendment proponents, an authoritarian blow to a free press, and will ultimately be used to make an example out of him for the rest of the media to think twice before exposing the crimes of the U.S. government. Assange will face a decision from the U.K. court on January 4, 2021.

While Assange’s show trial stands as a glowing example of Western disregard for press freedoms, he isn’t alone in the emerging model of state and corporate suppression of speech. On October 14, 2020, social media monopolies Facebook and Twitter took on the private sector’s assault on press freedoms. The New York Post — a shoddy rightwing tabloid owned by reactionary billionaire crank Rupert Murdock — released a series of articles which published purported hacked emails stemming from Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. The Post claims these emails were obtained from Hunter Biden’s old laptop, which was turned over to the paper via Rudy Guiliani.

The social media corporations flagged and suppressed the content due to its suspicious sourcing, citing it as hacked material. Facebook limited the reach and engagement of the Post’s story link, while Twitter claimed the link was “potentially unsafe” and censored the content, forbidding users to share the link. Twitter users who attempted to share the story received a message from the moderators, “we can’t complete this request because this link has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially harmful.” Twitter also suspended the Post’s account, which was recently reinstated on October 29, following a change in corporate policy.

After the suspension, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted wrongdoing and took responsibility for a nontransparent process. Yet, according to a report from NPR, both Facebook and Twitter were unwilling to share more transparency on the matter, including their methodologies. Keep in mind, social media corporations had four years to prepare safeguards and transparent processes against alleged election interference and misinformation.

Now 50 former U.S. intelligence officials are claiming — without evidence — the story appears to be “Russian disinformation.” Whether or not the story is credible or “Russian propaganda” isn’t the point, that’s for journalists, readers, and social media users to decide.

With that said, the story’s sourcing and credibility appear to be incredibly fishy and look like part of a last-ditch GOP ratfucking campaign to diminish support for the Biden camp. While The Post isn’t generally a great source for information or reporting, the removal and censorship of content by social media fact-checkers is worrisome.

Social media monopolies and their moderators are not qualified and not accountable to the public to be the arbiters behind fact-finding missions. As noted by Glenn Greenwald, if the same precedent were applied, hacks and leaks from the Pentagon Papers, the Panama Papers, the Snowden story, or other stories that exposed the national security state’s infringements on human rights and civil liberties would similarly be censored. The scenario has created a dangerous precedent that allows unqualified and nontransparent private industry to dictate reality and permissible speech.

This precedent is already being used against the left. A Mother Jones report showed that insiders at Facebook claim that the platform often throttles leftwing and liberal content, while manipulating the algorithm to promote conservative media. Facebook is now also blocking leftwing magazine, Jacobin, from posting videos updating on the Bolivia election. As journalist Chip Gibbons pointed out on Twitter, this is the second notable case of social media censorship against leftwing content, the first being from journalist Rania Khalek. It also comes as Twitter suspended accounts from former Occupy activists back in 2018 and Texas’s state government has passed laws that forbid support of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement. Suppressing leftist critiques is becoming the new norm for those that reject and are critical of capitalism and imperialist dogmatism.

While the attacks on the press ramp up from the state and corporations, dissent and civil liberties are now being targeted in the streets. The U.S. is entering into the sixth month of civil unrest following the state murders of Black citizens and police violence against Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Throughout the uprising’s duration, countless videos and reports have surfaced of federal, state, and local law enforcement committing unwarranted acts of violence and repression against protestors and reporters.

Since the uprisings, law enforcement has been documented recklessly driving cars into crowds, assaulting elderly and women demonstrators, macing children, using unlawful force against Black people and their comrades, shooting paintball bullets at residents on their own property, kidnapping protesters, and engaging in politically motivated interrogations.

Many demonstrators and journalists have been injured, including some being maimed or blinded by the use of excessive force. Over 13,000 protesters have been arrested nationwide with 300 facing federal charges. That number is likely to tick up as state murders of Black people continue and researchers compile more arrest data. Now two demonstrators face life sentences, which legal experts and First Amendment advocates have called “deeply disturbing” and “unprecedented.”

It’s no secret that basic civil liberties are under assault. U.S. state governments have long participated in voter suppression, yet the contempt for basic civil liberties is turning a corner. On October 31, 2020, the Associated Press reported that North Carolina local law enforcement tear gassed and pepper sprayed North Carolians on their way to exercise their enfranchisement. Children, marching with their parents, were reported to have become violently ill following the police’s attack, while two people were arrested on their way to vote.

The international community — along with many strong U.S. allies — have condemned the state violence and political repression, especially against members of the press. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of November 1, 2020, there have been 312 press freedom violations (including assaults and arrests) against journalists during 2020 — representing one of the largest upticks since the tracker launched. Comparatively, the tracker documented 152 total press freedom violations in 2019, 132 in 2018, and 144 in 2017. Journalists across independent, corporate, and international media have been indiscriminately targeted by law enforcement. There have been numerous instances of crowd control weapons systems being deployed against reporters including on live television against an MSNBC reporter, while a CNN reporter was arrested live on camera.

There was always a fog which has shield the state, their enforcement arms, and the political and financial elite from true scrutiny. It’s quickly fading.

The U.S. is headed down an unprecedented path of an increasingly authoritarian state-corporate model of suppression that erodes civil liberties. This comes in many forms, from reducing credible reports of the brutality of U.S. imperialism to state repression through violence against dissent, civil liberties, and press coverage. On top of this, unaccountable social media corporations are deciding facts, while the national security state smears anyone who objects to their lines as foreign intelligence assets. As long as this continues, the repression of dissent and civil liberties will remain on the brink of authoritarianism.

As socialism and leftist politics resurge, like the censorship faced by the Hollywood Ten, the left must prepare for a new norm of suppression and repression. Only through solidarity and a unified movement standing for the few civil liberties that remain can protect those who publish or question the crimes of the U.S. government and the elite. Without unequivocally standing for press freedoms and speech, civil liberties are teetering to outright authoritarianism via the state-corporate model.

In the words of famed member of the Hollywood Ten and communist, Dalton Trumbo, “Dishonesty in government is the business of every citizen. It is not enough to do your own job. There’s no particular gift in that. Democracy isn’t a gift. It’s a responsibility.”

Jack Delaney is a former policy analyst. He worked on issues relating to health care, disability, and labor policy, and is a member of the National Writers Union. 

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