What does the First Amendment mean to you?
Not since 1971 have we seen the government so blatantly attack the freedom of the press. Working for local news organizations most of my life, I have a strong affiliation to the principles that should guide the news. I also hold in equal regard the freedoms that must be upheld for our democracy to flourish.
The Department of Justice, Deputy Attorney General James Cole and maybe Attorney General Eric Holder, who grew up in Queens, need to read New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971). Although the case deals with attempted censorship of the press by the government, it draws some clear lines. The First Amendment, as drafted from James Madison’s proposals, is there to “satisfy citizens that these great liberties would remain safe and beyond the power of government to abridge,” Justice Black said in the case’s majority opinion.
The current case against the Associated Press is a clear attempt by the government to abridge that freedom, under a guise of national security. The article published by the AP on May 7, 2012 was concerning a bomb plot, thwarted by the CIA, to use an improved underwear bomb on a plane.
The AP has claimed it was in contact with government officials prior to publication. It had held the story from late April until assured any national security risks were allayed. The White House had wanted the story held a day longer, until an official announcement was made.
One of the key points in the article was that both the White House and other government agencies were assuring the people that “we have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden’s death,” as stated by Jay Carney in his April 26, 2012 press briefing. By May 7 we knew differently.
One of the most sacred duties of the press is to hold our government accountable on statements it makes to the people. If the people have no faith in what they are told, how can there be trust? I don’t, however, take much issue with nondisclosure of a threat that was well in hand, like this one.
What is at question now is the witch hunt for the leak. The DOJ had issued subpoenas for phone records of 20 separate telephone lines, including personal phones of the reporters involved. It also obtained the records for numbers at three main offices, including the general AP switchboard — all with no prior notice to the news organization, which DOJ guidelines strictly demand.
The DOJ has guidelines for cases concerning the press and they were clearly not followed. They are only three pages long and you can read them yourself on our website.
The DOJ can now look over every call made to and from the AP, many of which may include other confidential source calls. Should reporters and news sources have to resort to burner cell phones and handwritten messages? We have come a long way in technology since 1971 but apparently not in federal understanding of not “... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ...”
Justice Black also wrote, “The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” So this is just another right gone by the wayside since 9/11.
Michael Ojaste is the Queens Chronicle’s technology consultant and president of DragonMac & PC Consulting, LLC.