by Fred Dungan
"I have been gagged all my life, and whether they are appreciated or not, America needs some honest men who dare to say what they think, not what they think people want them to think." - General George S. Patton, Jr."The true character of liberty is independence, maintained by force." - VoltaireTo speak out against the way things were done in colonial times was to risk a charge of sedition. The American Revolution changed all that, giving people the right to freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans said what they meant and meant what they said. It may not have made us loved - but we certainly gained the world's respect.
How soon we forget. In an age of "political correctness" it has almost become a sin to say something that might hurt someone else's feelings. Have we become so soft and delicate that we suffer permanent injury from mere words? Verbal abuse? Give me a break. The wonderful thing about freedom of speech is that if someone - anyone, regardless of position and power—says something you don't like, you can let them have it with both verbal barrels.
Don't be intimidated. Your opinion is just as good as that of the so-called experts. That is what democracy is all about. Like anything else, freedom of speech soon atrophies if you don't employ it. God gave you a voice for a reason - to fail to use it to the best of your ability is an insult to the Almighty.
Stress is a killer. Quit stuffing it all inside. You don't need Valium or Prozac—the best medicine in the world is to let off a little steam. Be yourself. Stop worrying about unseen consequences. Offending isn't a crime. Not to get on someone when they truly deserve it often compounds the problem. How is someone supposed to know they are acting like a jerk if you don't tell them?
Sucking up is for sychophants, lackeys, and the insincere. Have some dignity. Make it on your own merits.
Cervantes, Milton, and Martin Luther King, Jr., went to jail for what they had to say. No such fate awaits you. The strongest prison is the one you build for yourself. Break out now before it's too late.Sometimes it's not what you say, but what you refuse to say. On July 20, 2001, novice writer Vanessa Leggett was found in contempt of court by a federal district court judge and sent to prison for an indefinite term for refusing to surrender a portion of her interviews for an upcoming book about the 1997 murder of Texas socialite Doris Angleton, the wife of millionaire bookie Robert Angleton. The court believes that her notes will shed light on the shooting and subsequent jailhouse suicide of a suspect. Vanessa is the victim of an entrenched system of justice that demands unquestioning obedience from the citizens it is supposed to serve regardless of mitigating circumstances. How ironic that a writer who is only tangentially connected to the crime is the only person serving time. She originally cooperated with the FBI and gave them information concerning the crime. But they wanted more and when she refused to become an undercover snitch, they resorted to strongarm tactics. First they subpoened her and when that didn't intimidate her, they had her thrown in jail. And they did it in a sneaky way—the proceedings were closed to the public. The federal government has taken the ridiculous stance that Vanessa isn't entitled to First Amendment rights guaranteeing freedom of the press because she is a freelance journalist rather than a salaried employee.
While it is true that Leggett took an unconventional path to becoming a journalist—the Texas native worked as a legal assistant, a private eye, and a part-time teacher of English and criminal justice before turning her attention to writing books—there is no law that prevents people from following the career path of their choice. The long and the short of it is that Vanessa has been left to rot in jail because she had the guts to stand up to a bunch of bullies. In a decision dated August 17, 2001, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that "the district court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Leggett incarcerated for contempt." So they think she failed to show the court respect, do they? It seems to me that it was the other way around. Tossing a law abiding citizen into the slammer for refusing to compromise her integrity is about as rude and disrespectful as it is possible to get.
Writing from her 8 by 10 cinder block cell in downtown Houston to Newsweek, Leggett describes her ordeal:I am not a gambler or a murderer. I am a 33-year-old college English teacher and freelance writer.
Four years ago I began investigating the murder of Houston socialite Doris Angleton in order to write a book about the case. I interviewed countless witnesses and chased leads in Houston and in six states.
Doris was the wife of Robert Angleton, a bookie who took bets from HoustonⳠrich and powerful. He had friends (and clients) in high places, including the district attorneyⳠoffice and the police department.
Doris filed for divorce in February of 1997, threatening to expose RobertⳠillicit empire if he didnⴠshare the millions he had stashed away. On April 16, police found her bullet-ridden body sprawled on her kitchen floor. Robert immediately fingered his brother Roger.
When authorities arrested Roger Angleton in Las Vegas, he was carrying a briefcase with $64,000 in cash that had RobertⳠfingerprints on it. They say RogerⳠbriefcase also revealed notes about the killing and a cassette tape of the two brothers plotting the murder.
A Houston grand jury charged both brothers with capital murder. The prosecutorⳠ theory was simple: Robert Angleton paid his brother to kill his wife.
Over four months of extensive interviews with Roger in jail, I gained intimate details of the case from this alleged triggerman. Our sessions came to a halt when Roger was found dead in his cell with a suicide note shortly before his brotherⳠtrial. The D.A.Ⳡoffice insisted my interviews with Roger made me an essential witness. I was subpoenaed, but never called on to testify.... I was stunned when the judge read the 㮯t guilty䠶erdict.
Two years after the state-court acquittal, the FBI sought my help in its investigation of Robert Angleton for federal charges.... Agents offered me a confidential-informant contract, which stipulated that I would provide them with my research in exchange for cash. I declined. My research was for a book, and not for sale to the FBI. The contract also gave the agency the power to control the dissemination of my research. I felt strongly that this infringed on my right to free speech. As I pushed the document back across the table to one agent, another agent handed me a federal-grand-jury subpoena.... The...subpoena demanded that I turn over any tapes or transcripts I had from all of my interviews, including copies. If I had complied, the Feds would have had sole access to my work, preventing me from writing my book and substantiating my research for a publisher. More important, I would have violated the confidentiality agreements I had made with my sources.... The Feds responded to my noncompliance by sending me to jail.
I spend my days alone for the most part in my cell.... I can stand in line to use the phone, although sometimes the wait is so long it is turned off before itⳠmy turn. The government listens to all our conversations anyhow. My mail...is read by the prison.
My new home is one block from Enron Field, home of the Astros. I can glimpse the stadium from a narrow window in the prison day room. On weekdays my students are not far: the campus where I am scheduled to teach this fall is six blocks away.
Though all of this is around me, I⭠living a lonely existence. My belief that I am doing the right thing buoys my morale. ItⳠuncertain how much longer my government will keep me in prison..... But for the near future at least, maintaining my journalistic freedom will mean sacrificing my personal liberty.
In a letter addressed to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee urged that Legget be released on bail because she "presents no risk of flight, nor does she pose any danger to society or to herself. Her only 'crime' was to protect her confidential sources in keeping with the traditional notions of a free press."
By refusing to release Leggett our government is sending a message to other nations that we condone sending the press to prison when they show some spunk and refuse to go along to get along. Throughout the western hemisphere, only three journalists are in prison for doing their jobs. Leggett is one and the other two are in Cuba (Note: Vanessa Leggett was finally released from custody on January 5, 2002, one day after her attorney filed a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court to review her case). She had been incarcerated for 168 days and federal prosecutors were considering filing further charges against her. A journalist languishing in jail is a sure sign of an authoritarian regime. The Justice Department appears to be long on vengence and short on civil liberties—a mean-spirited caricature of the image of fair and impartial justice that the United States endeavors to project to the rest of the world.
On April 12, 2002, the PEN American Center whose ranks include many of the country's most prestigious writers, announced that Vanessa Leggett had won the PEN First Amendment Award which includes a $25,000 prize. Her fellow journalists cited her as "a powerful example of personal conviction and courage in the face of the most extreme pressure" and "a hero in the effort to preserve investigative freedom for writers and journalists in the U.S." Three days later, a different panel of judges—the justices of the United States Supreme Court—put a damper on the celebration by refusing to consider Ms. Leggett's bid for a hearing on the constitutionality of the contempt charges and associated legal issues facing U.S. journalists.
On August 1, 2006, Josh Wolf, a San Francisco, California, freelance journalist and political activist was sent to federal prison where he could be held for nearly a year after refusing a grand jury's demand that he turn over unaired videotapes of a 2005 anarchist demonstration in which protesters clashed with San Francisco police.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup found Josh Wolf, 24 years of age, in contempt of court for failing to comply with a subpoena that the federal grand jury issued on February 1, 2006. Alsup rejected Wolf's claim that a reporter has a right to withhold unpublished material, and he said federal prosecutors were seeking the videos for a legitimate investigation into a possible crime—the attempted burning of a San Francisco police car. Wolf's attorney later speculated that the real reason the court wanted the videos was to intimidate and/or punish citizens who stood up against globalization and other questionable policies that the government was attempting to implement in the name of the American people.
In August 2006, San Francisco Chronicle reporters Williams and Fainaru-Wada blew the cover off the BALCO scandal before baseball itself did, and before Congress did. Because of them, we know that Jason Giambi used steroids, we know about the cream and the clear, and we know about Barry Bonds' "flaxseed oil." The shocking revelations in Williams and Fainaru-Wada's articles were instigators for major reforms in baseball's steroid policy, a Congressional investigation into steroid use in baseball, tougher penalties for steroid distribution and increased public awareness of the dangers of steroids. Such are the results of investigative reporting at its finest. Despite the good this reporting helped engender, federal prosecutors pressured the reporters to reveal their sources. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled in November 2006 that the two reporters would face 18 months in prison if they persisted in their obstinance.Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press amount to pretty much the same thing—the right to express yourself in any way you choose to whomever you want to communicate your opinions, ideas, and thoughts to—with one important exception: while everyone has a voice, not many have ready access to the media and fewer still own a printing press. This is a real shame, considering that a printing press, radio station, or television network amplifies a person's voice, enabling him/her to reach a wider audience. And reaching a wider audience is a sure-fire way to gain power. The rest of us, regardless of our individual education, experience, and/or common sense, are left hanging.
That's all changing. Almost anyone can gain access to the internet. Even if you can't afford a computer, you can go to your local public library and use one of its computers (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated two state-of-the-art computers to the branch library in my community—part of a nationwide effort to provide universal access). Alluding to the value of the internet as a free and open forum, the U.S. Supreme Court recently observed that the worldwide web is the place where "any person can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox."
But there are people who want to limit that voice. And the danger is that they are keeping it out of schools and libraries - the very institutions that we built to teach the principles of free speech found in the First Amendment. The Children's Internet Protection Act (sneaked through Congress on December 21, 2000 as part of an omnibus appropriations bill) requires all institutions receiving federal funds to install filtering software designed to block access to obscene content on their computer terminals. But the software is seriously flawed. A study by Consumer Reports found that "filters block harmless sites" because they have no way of determining "the context in which a word or phrase is used." Even worse, they can lull responsible, caring adults into a false sense of security. No filtering technology available today can catch 100 percent of the garbage that is out there.
In my opinion, if we are going to censor anything - a recent informal MSNBC opinion poll found that of 8344 people responding, 58 percent believed that government should not be in the business of censorship—the job is better performed by humans than machines. Teachers and librarians aren't stupid. I think we can trust them to supervise the materials our children are viewing. And we always have the option of firing any that fail to live up to our expectations.
This was not Congress' first attempt to censor the internet. In June 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court found it necessary to strike down an earlier law known as the Communications Decency Act. The problem, of course, is that there are things on the internet that we don't want our children to see. The best way to regulate is to just say no. It is impossible to devise a software program or a law that can substitute for the traditional role of parents and educators.
A federal court has ruled that a Missouri school district violated a student's freedom of speech when it suspended him for criticizing his teachers on his personal web page. Brandon Beussink, 17, in conjunction with his sister, used his parents' computer to set up a personal web page on the internet in which he criticized Woodland High School's official website and urged visitors to e-mail the school's principal. Athough he got rid of the webpage after receiving complaints from school officials, they went ahead and gave him a 10 day suspension and subsequently failed him for the semester as a result of his absences. In December 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel acted to bar the Woodland School District from restricting what students could post on the internet when at home. Writing in summation, he affirmed that "dislike or being upset by the content of a student's speech is not an acceptable justification for limiting student speech."
Edwin Darden, an attorney for the National School Boards Association believes that courts are performing "a balancing act" in weighing students' freedom of speech against school districts' need to maintain discipline. "These really are untested waters," he remarked.
Long ago, powerful people who desired to limit what others had to say on the internet figured out that the easiest way was to intimidate a commercial internet service provider (ISP's connect people to the internet) into doing the dirty work for them. By pulling ads and organizing boycotts, they can exert leverage on ISPs to pull the plug on controversial websites. While the First Amendment prevents the government from interfering with your freedom of speech, there is nothing to prevent a corporation or group that is giving you a bad time from writing to your ISP and complaining about something you posted on the internet. In my experience, far too many ISP's—especially those who know the value of good public relations - won't even bother to investigate the charges. If it is a choice between keeping you as a subscriber and turning a profit, you had best be prepared to kiss your website goodbye.
One noteworthy example is that of a website dedicated to Anne Frank which was set up by a university student. An excellent site, it included pictures and quotes from the famous diary. Being excerpts, they in no way violated copyright law. However, the organization which owns the rights to Anne Frank was able to get the university to shut down the site by lodging a complaint.
This approach is far more effective than one might expect. My publisher, Domhan Books, began business in 1998 by advertising its e-books on the web via the free (in exchange for running a banner ad) services of a San Francisco based ISP. Such were the host's policies, that the very first complaint generated prompt removal with no possible means of appeal. Subdomains (hosted - usually at no charge - by large dot coms like Fortune City, Talk City, Spree, and Tripod) are particularly vulnerable. But even individuals and companies who go to the expense of purchasing their own domains are not completely safe.
Anonymity will not necessarily protect you. While services such as America Online (AOL) and Hotmail permit you to set up fictitious accounts (or sometimes force you to do so because your name is not available), they either expose or dump you (AOL did it to my son) as soon as anyone begins to throw dirt. AOL has a reputation for disclosing user identities upon receipt of a subpoena, and, occasionally, even without one.
In July 1996, AOL (the largest ISP in the world with more than six million subscribers), decided to ban messages written in Spanish from its chat rooms and message boards. At the height of the 1996 Olympics, AOL's "Grandstand Forum" was deluged with messages written in Spanish and Portugese—two languages which it claimed were not spoken by any of its monitoring staff. Because AOL didn't want to be responsible for messages over which it had no control, the company elected to delete them as soon as they appeared. However, AOL continued to maintain chat rooms and message boards for its French and German subscribers. Allegations of racism were rampant. "Why did this rule apply only in the Latin folders. Why didn't it apply in the German or French rules?," inquired Marcello Rossetti, a frequent contributor to Grandstand Forum. "This rule should have applied across the boards...you're going to tell me that in the United States they can't find anyone who speaks Spanish?...maybe in Iceland, but not here." Rosetti posted messages—in English—on Grandstand Forum outlining his case and asking other subscribers for their support, but his messages were erased by AOL almost as quickly as they were written. It took a complaint to the American Civil Liberties Union and a threat of legal action by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund to make AOL back down.
On December 11, 1998, America Online closed most of the 23 discussion groups in its Irish Heritage Forum. According to AOL, they were shut down due to profanity and personal attacks which were expressly prohibited under the Terms of Service contract with its subscribers. However, there were reports that AOL's actions were precipitated by Unionist subscribers who complained about the forum's pro-republican content. Activist Kate Sheridan claimed that AOL's actions were "politically motivated, intended to extinguish a growing firestorm of pro-republican news and comment in the Forum." On December 28, 1998, AOL reinstituted the Irish Heritage Forum after erasing all previous postings. A notice was posted by an AOL manager lecturing users on internet protocol.
America Online continues to garner criticism for over-policing its sites. Official monitors roam the chat rooms and forums looking for forbidden words and phrases. The Terms of Service agreement signed by subscribers gives AOL carte blanche to delete posts, shut down websites, and, following three violations, disconnect offenders. The fine print in the contract obligates subscribers to avoid "posting on or transmitting through the AOL service any unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, profane, hateful, racially, ehtnically or otherwise objectionable material." The premise is that subscribers enter into these agreements voluntarily. However, the reality is that it is next to impossible to gain access to the internet without signing a Terms of Service agreement with an ISP.
In the wake of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Patriot Act and other legislation was enacted that placed severe limitations on civil liberties. On May 30, 2002, the Department of Justice announced new guidelines giving FBI agents greater latitude to monitor internet sites, libraries, and religious institutions without having to offer any evidence of potential criminal activity. Under the new guidelines, field office directors are allowed to launch terrorism investigations and undercover probes against individuals and organizations without clearance from headquarters. According to a Department of Justice spokesperson the changes were made because "investigations of criminal groups were impeded by limits on scope, duration, and red tape." By red tape, one can assume the FBI is referring to constitutional requirements. These new guidelines, in effect, remove all reasonable control of the agency, giving them the authority to act pretty much as they please.
Under the guise of protecting the public from terrorism, Internet Service Providers have moved to silence controversial viewpoints. In what appears to be a knee jerk reaction to 9-11, we have seen a record number of websites deleted from the internet by their ISP's:
In February, 2003, the well known alternative news publication YellowTimes org was shut down without explanation by its hosting company after it published an article by an Iraqi nuclear scientist. In March 2002, Angelfire closed a website devoted to discussing issues surrounding 750 Florida detainees. In October 2001, a fan discussion forum devoted to the popular alternative band Rage Against the Machine was shutdown after the FBI purportedly called the Internet Service Provider, saying there was too much anti-American rhetoric on that board. allewislive.com, a website about Al Lewis, who played Grandpa on the Munsters television show, was shut down by web hosting provider Hypervine without explanation.
I belong to a military discussion group where the discipline exercised by the parent body is so strict that I once got kicked out for engaging in a dialogue concerning whether or not certain members of the armed forces were required to file state income tax returns (a subject not military enough, in the opinion of my superiors, to warrant posting). Although I was later reinstated, our local chapter's president was subsequently expelled for expressing her views in private correspondence. This must sound draconian in the extreme. However, the regulations appear to enjoy the approval of the membership who support the parent non-profit organization through voluntary donations.
For the free spirits who prefer to play without rules, there are thousands of newsgroups in hundreds of categories serving every imaginable subject from alt.binaries to zoom.quake (the software required to access these sites—Free Agent and Microsoft's Outlook 5.0 among others—are shareware programs which can be downloaded at no charge). Be forewarned, however: unmoderated sites are frequently chaotic, disruptive, and/or downright repulsive. All but a handful are deserted archives frequented by outcasts and spam artists. The wild frontier of the infant worldwide web is rapidly disappearing. Flaming diatribe has given way to intelligent, meaningful discussion. For the most part it is welcomed.
My chief gripe with CNN.com, MSNBC, and similar online media outlets is that they are rapidly becoming as fearful of offending the status quo as traditional print and broadcast sources. It took a Matt Drudge to unveil the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. While a good case could be made for not airing such trash in public, the right of the public to get wind of potential corruption and abuse of authority is indisputably paramount. Democracy functions best in an atmosphere of tolerance where there are minimum restrictions placed on the free exchange of information.
Having been treated as a commodity in the labor market for more than 30 years, afraid to speak out lest I be terminated by my employer since I did not possess the means to do so effectively, I can readily testify that the internet and its interactive offshoots (e-mail, message boards, newsgroups, forums, etcetera) are effecting the liberation of the common man such as no amount of do-goodism and liberal sentiments could ever accomplish. For the price of a computer (much less than that of a Model T in Henry Ford's heyday), anyone can put the pedal to the metal on the information superhighway, escaping the stultifying confines of modern existence, and be transported to a universe of the mind that knows no boundaries.
Bash the military-industrial complex as one might - and, in truth, I have done my share—it should be remembered that the Pentagon gave us the internet. Not since the Marshal Plan has there been such an outbreak of altruism.
I invite you, the reader, to join me at http://www.fdungan.com and tell me what you think needs to be done to further ensure freedom of expression on the internet. You can save a 37 cent stamp by writing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of Bushwhacked by Fred Dungan.