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A government against liberty

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“It's a culture of cover-ups and intimidation that is giving the administration so much trouble,” asserted Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee, referring to the Justice Department's covert seizure of phone records at The Associated Press.

Charging that “our constitutional rights have been violated,” AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said the government's surreptitious monitoring of reporters already has had a chilling effect on news-gathering operations.

News sources, understandably, are more likely to be reluctant to call reporters if they think the government is on the line, and that's especially true if the disclosure is about government transgressions.

“Under their own rules, they are required to narrow this request as narrowly as possible so as to not tread upon the First Amendment,” explained Pruitt on CBS' “Face the Nation,” referring to the phone monitoring.

“And yet they had a broad, sweeping collection, and they did it secretly,” said Pruitt. “Their rules require them to come to us first, but in this case they didn't, claiming an exception, saying that would have posed a substantial threat to their investigation. But they have not explained why it would and we can't understand why it would.”

The result of this increased monitoring and harassment of the press is that the government becomes even more insulated from public scrutiny, more heavy-handed and inept, and more shielded from reform.

Once the government is successful in restricting the news-gathering operations of the press, warned Pruitt, “the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know and that's not what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.”

Pruitt has it right about that philosophy, as demonstrated in the letters of Thomas Jefferson.

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” asserted Jefferson in a Jan. 28, 1786, letter to James Currie (1745-1807), a Virginia physician and frequent correspondent during Jefferson's residence in France.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” wrote Jefferson in 1787 to Edward Carrington, a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788.

“Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe,” stated Jefferson in 1816 in a letter to Col. Charles Yancey, a commanding officer in the Virginia Militia during the War of 1812.

And regarding those who seek to restrict the freedom of the press, Jefferson wrote this in 1804 to Judge John Tyler on the U.S. Circuit Court in Richmond: “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all avenues of truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party, 1953 to 1964, also understood the importance of the press. “The press,” he proclaimed, “is our chief ideological weapon.”

Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur (rrreiland@aol.com).

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