The Free Speech Red Herring
The New York Times' recent defenses of its actions in exposing classified information are invoking debates about the power of government, specifically the separation of those powers and the rights of free speech and freedom of the press. I will deal with the separation of powers in my next post, but for now, let's explore the really misunderstood right we have to freedom of speech and of the press.
The First Amendment to our Federal Constitution is possibly the single most important engine for change that we have in this nation. We can say whatever we like about the government and its officials and criticize them to the point of cruelty without fear of any criminal sanction. We have that right because our Founders knew well that freedom to say what one pleased about government was one of the most important tools for keeping the state honest and accountable to the people it served.
And from that right, a rather gigantic private media enterprise has developed, which has never shown much reluctance to be critical of government. And while idea competition and criticism makes life unpleasant for state officials, we have come to accept and expect that same is part of the game for those who choose to involve themselves in government. If you can't stand the heat...
And there is nothing wrong with doing that. Free speech is one of the greatest engines for the generation of ideas that are great and for the rejection of those that aren't, and it is the responsibility of citizens to make their government operate in a proper manner by applying unwelcome pressure. And while political speech is beyond the reach of the state to control or punish, the right to it comes with moral and legal responsibilities as well.
The right carries the responsibility and the social expectation of honesty. It's one thing to make sincerely believed but factually incorrect statements. In that case, one only looks foolish. But it's quite another to deceive. And for a newspaper to pretend that it is being objective and trying to assist the public when its true objective is to play a game of political one-upsmanship against an administration which it opposes at the expense of the safety of the people, that is an abuse of the right. Dishonesty of this nature should obviously carry no criminal sanction of any kind, but it must carry an incalculable social cost with the punishment being ostracism in the form of cancelled subscriptions and denial of access to its reporters among other things. Lying to people about your political objectives, while pretending to be objective is morally reprehensible and inexcusable.
The right also presumes that people will not use their speech to endanger innocent people, as free speech does not include the right to commit acts that imperil others. Just as one cannot scream "fire" in a crowded place to create a gratuitous panic for some laughs, one cannot release state secrets in the middle of a war, regardless of whatever false benevolent objective is used as a justification.
These kinds of things get people killed. In this regard, I certainly agree that things have become harder for terrorists when it comes to the security of their financial activities. But thanks to the New York Times' efforts over the past six months, things have also become safer for terrorists. They know that their accounts are compromised. They will deal in cash. Much harder, much more cumbersome, but now they know how to avoid our scrutiny. They also know that it might be wise to physically move their operation, as transactions already known may lead authorities to their location. And the smart terrorists are the ones that pull off the successful operations that we so want to avoid.
The release of such information as the Times has done is not only immoral, but also cozies up very close to criminal activity, even if it doesn't exactly meet the definition.
So when you hear the defense of freedom of speech and of the press, understand that those freedoms do not mean that acts taken are in any way socially acceptable, honorable, or moral. Mean nothing more than the fact that one can't go to jail for such speech. And I would hope that those of the media-left would remember that respectable journalism means way more than just staying out of jail, and includes a respect for the nation as a whole and forbearance in reporting of matters that are better kept secret.