Tag Archives: First Amendment rights

High expectations+vigilance will preserve 1st Amendment rights

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected **

Though of disputed origin, the quote reflects my deep faith in the guiding premise of the First Amendment that affirms the fundamental role of a free press in a democracy.   The digital age presents a mighty challenge to both – in terms of role, economics, technology, critical thinking and attitudes. As the role and power of a free press is tested at this hour it behooves those who depend on the free flow of information and ideas to exercise what a wise mentor described as “perceptive paranoia”.

Journalists have spoken, perhaps most adamantly in the letter that a host of professional journalism associations have sent to the President-Elect. Because the thrust of their letter is press access to the Executive Branch, the writers note that “this isn’t about access for the press itself; it’s about access for Americans in diverse communities across the country.” To read the full text of that letter click here: http://www.poynter.org/2016/journalism-organizations-call-on-trump-to-uphold-traditions-of-white-house-coverage/439519/

Suffice to say, the press, a bit mollified by recent miscalculations, is roiled up and divided in their prognostications of what’s to come. In yesterday’s WaPo David Drezner describes the contrast between Obama’s “no drama” mantra, the “tight-lipped” approach of both Bush administrations, and that, which is to come.  Drezner concludes that, though “many will fret that this is just the beginning of an administration that will test the constraints of the First Amendment…if the past week suggests anything, it is that the Trump team will need the press just as much as it claims to loathe it.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/the-outsized-role-of-the-press-in-the-trump-administration/?utm_term=.42f3180cd910

Today the forces of information and communication technology are one and the same, the reality of which is not lost on Steve Bannon who has long worked off the grid to share information/misinformation that has clearly shaped and reinforced public opinion and voter behavior.

Lip service to a free press will not suffice today. Nor will passive inaction assure that the First Amendment remains as the core tenet of the democracy, given the prominence imbued by the founding fathers as first among the inalienable rights afforded citizens of the new nation.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That’s the story of my lofty expectations for a free press and an informed citizenry. As always, it is up to the body politic to maintain constant vigilance, even as political reality, coupled with communication and information technology, challenge our assumptions about how and why we know what we know about our government.

** The origin of the adage is a story in itself:  http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004100.html *

 

Banned Books Week September 25-October 1, 2016

Since we’re all about the Constitution this campaign season, it seems timely to take note of the First Amendment:  Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment is the foundation that informs Banned Books Week 2016 – and that underscores this year’s observation. For more than thirty years Banned Books week has waved the Banned Books Week banner with a bold, noisy, in-your-face celebration of the Constitutional right to speak and be heard, to write and be read.

By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. Each of the books featured during BBW has been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools.

Though books have been and continue to be banned, one message of Banned Books Week is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This fact reflects the efforts of librarians, writers, booksellers, journalists, teachers, students, parents and community members who have exercised the freedom to read.

As in the past, resources – informational and promotional – abound. Truth to tell, there is just so much good stuff that it’s impossible to post all the links and all the treasures. Still, some useful starting points:

For an example of a robust agenda of BBW activities check out the plans created through the collaborative efforts of the St Paul Public Library and Metropolitan State University — http://sppl.org/banned

Creative ideas and promotional materials for Banned Books Week 2016 abound! These links will simply open doors – behind those doors you’ll find posters, graphics, lists, tip sheets and tons of other materials that can be duplicated and posted as appropriate in your classroom, library, bookstore, coffee house, community gathering site or digital network.

The point is to value the right to read, to tap the resources, and to collaborate so that we work as a community, as members of  concerned professions and as a democratic society to capitalize on the potential of Banned Books Week to serve as a “teachable moment.”

 

 

FOIA at Fifty — Does access to information really matter?

We can’t be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don’t have the facts. Tavis Smiley

Back at the dawn of the digital age my prescient brother sold the potential of pricey technology by answering the inevitable question ”Whadya sellin’?” with the ubiquitous retort ”Whadya need?” Though the goal was to sell the product, the first step was to identify the customer’s need – the gadget wouldn’t matter till the buyer “felt the pain.”

Truth to tell, few Americans will specify “open government” or “transparency” high on their Litany of Felt Needs. Fewer still will recognize their lack of access to information by and about the government as a major source of pain or as a detriment to living a fulfilled life. The Founding Fathers highlighted identified the five basic freedoms in the First Amendment as the Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly and Petition.

Here I have to quote Gene Policinski, CEO of the Newseum Institute, who advised readers that “you may not think of the First Amendment in working terms. More likely, you don’t think of it at all – or if you do, it’s associated with harpsichord music and Colonial Times.” (DesMoines Register, April 18, 2015) As Policinski suggests, for most citizens “open government” is a remote and nebulous yawn.

And yet Policinski wakens us with the truth that “while all 10 of the amendments in the Bill of Rights protect our rights, it’s the First Amendment that defines the core freedoms we use every day.”

The first challenge for advocates of transparency and accountability is to make government information matter — only then will the body politic care, or even notice, if, how, by whom and why the information chain is frayed or broken. The unfortunate but no less true that the need for government information is too often best illuminated by the failure of the system to fulfill the promise.

The ongoing crisis in Flint offers a case study: Serving the public watchdog role incumbent on investigative journalism, the Huffington Post reports in detail the failure of the government to uphold its information responsibility:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-lead-water- epa_us_569522a8e4b086bc1cd5373c )

Though illustrative of incredible failure, the article demonstrates the ways in which reliable information matters, and why government alone plays the essential role as collector, organizer and point of access to information that matters – when it matters and to whom it matters. Whether it’s politics, incompetence or sheer negligence, the broken chain of government information lies at the core of the water crisis in Flint.

A very different but deeply distressing diatribe appears in a recent issue of Slate . The article exposes the racist manipulation of information gathered and managed by malevolent forces within the government.

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/01/what_the_fbi_s_surveillance_of_martin_luther_king_says_about_modern_spying.html)

These unspeakable realities expose the ugly underside of open government.   At the same time the contemporary allegories illustrate beyond question that information by and about the government matters not only in terms of national security but in the daily lives of the American people. The stories underscore the fact that ordinary citizens and their representatives bear responsibility for what is an inalienable right, a powerful force and a trust.

Information is a tool, useful and usable for good or for harm. Those who understand the power of information as a tool wield power, the critical power to provide reliable, essential, needed information or the power to derail, delude or destroy. The anecdotes underscore the lesson that information matters, that reliable, access to information by and about the government is at the core of this democracy.

It follows then, “as night the day”, that misinformation, the lack of information, hoarded information, the misuse or misinterpretation of information, the failure to collect or to disclose information subvert the common good. To protect the common good requires constant vigilance on the part of every American.

There are signs that the digital age is heightening awareness that information matters. One compelling example is a recent Internews study supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. The extensive study grapples with the compelling question from the government perspective. Entitled Why Information Matters the study concludes that “without information, people can neither understand nor effectively respond to the events that shape their world.”

http://www.internews.org/sites/default/files/resources/150513Internews_WhyInformationMatters.pdf

Never one to shield the reader from harsh truth, including the truth that information matters, master of the literary thriller Tom Clancy warned his readers that “the control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

The bulwark of access to information by and about the government is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted fifty years ago in July 1966. Discussions have already begun concerning the law, the rights it protects, the need for revision. The time is now to make the case that information by and about the government matters to the American people.