Notes On Freedom of Speech All Members of the World Community Should Read

Notes On Freedom Of Speech
By Prem Panicker
Exclusive to Peace and Freedom
July 26, 2006

News that the Indiangovernment had blocked various blog sites in the wake of the7/11 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai came as a shock. Our freedoms, including that of lawful speech, were not lightly won – and for precisely that reason, they cannot be lightly surrendered.

One stated reason for the ban – that a particular blog post had contained material that could inflame the passions of the followers of Islam – is disingenuous. If Islamic ire were to be roused by material on blog sites, there is already enough up there to trigger Armageddon.

The other stated reason – that subversive elements thought to be linked to the blasts werecommunicating through blogs – is ludicrous. Any intelligence agency worth the word ‘intelligence’ on its brass nameplate will, on cracking the enemy’s means of communication, instantly do two things: Throw a celebratory party, and devote enormous resources to monitoring that channel 24/7. What it will not do is tip the enemy off that it is being eavesdropped on.

Neither reason advanced for the blog blockade works. No reason used to justify such acts ever does, because there is no reason compelling enough to take away from us inalienable right to free speech.

Ironically, in that same week I also found thisstory in the Advocate, out of Baton Rouge:
“And FEMA rules make it hard for reporters to talk freely to the few park residents about life there. During an interview in one trailer, a security guard knocked on the door, ordered the reporter out and eventually called police, saying residents aren’t allowed to talk to the media in the park.”

And again: “Rodi (FEMA spokesperson Rachel Rodi) wouldn’t say whether the actions of the security guards in Morgan City and Davant complied with FEMA policy, saying the matter was being reviewed. But she confirmed that FEMA does not allow the media to speak alone to residents in their trailers.

‘If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview,’ Rodi said. ‘That’s just a policy’.”

No it isn’t, Rachel Rodi – flat out unconstitutional is what it is; untenable is what it is; illegal is what it is.

The dog, though, did not bark at midnight. And I find this lack of concerted outcry against the FEMA action, in the media and among the public, both sad and scary.

Sad, because this is the United States – the country that enshrines the right to free speech in its Constitution; and scary, because the lack of protest is myopic. Today, FEMA does not want you to know how it is screwing up relief efforts in Louisiana. Tomorrow, I could be the victim of a disaster natural or man made and so could you – what if, then, officialdom does not want the word of how I and you are suffering to get out?

In Freedoms 101, they teach you that freedom comes to you in one of two ways: Either the government is enlightened enough to realize that it is the foundation of all progress and grant it of their own volition, or the people are enlightened enough to know that they will never be complete without it, they will never be safe and secure without it, and demand it of their governments.

In a bid to snuff out an impending conflagration, Louis XVI of France famously summoned the Estates General to meet at Versailles. As constituted, it comprised three branches: 300 members of the nobility, 300 clergy, and 600 Joe Citizens.

Democracy in action, you would think – only, it didn’t work, because there was no mechanism to act as referee. Years later, long after the Bastille had fallen, British Parliamentarian Edmund Burke once looked up, from the floor of the House of Commons, into the gallery housing the press and said, ‘And there sits the Fourth Estate – the most powerful of them all.’

The media has the power to be the eyes and ears and voice for those of us people who can not be everywhere, see everything. The media has the power to hold the government’s feet to the fire, to ensure that it does what it is supposed to – namely, make your life and mine that little bit better.

There is a line beloved of those who take a narrow, jingoistic approach to patriotism: ‘My country right or wrong!’

Way back in 1872, Senator Carl Schurz put that bit of intemperate flag-waving in perspective when he said, ‘My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.’

In a speech later that year, Senator Schurz elaborated on that, in a speech that is even more relevant today: ‘I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: Our country, right or wrong!

They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’

That’s the trick, right there. We grow great as people, as a country, when we have the will to admire, revere, all that is good about our country but more, when we have the courage to know when it is going wrong, and haul it back onto the right path by the scruff of its neck.

To know when we are collectively going wrong, so we can apply the corrective, we need the media to be our eyes and ears, because we cannot be everywhere. Every act that erodes that function – the blocking of blogs in India, the banning of reporters in Baton Rouge – ultimately impacts on the wellbeing of us all.

There’s a joke from the Cold War era that tells of this American and Russian who were discussing freedom. ‘We are free,’ said the American. ‘If I wish to, I can walk up the steps of the White House and call my President an idiot!’ ‘Big deal,’ replied the Russian, ‘I too can walk up the steps of the White House and call your President an idiot!’

Stop laughing for a second and ask yourself this: When did we forfeit the ability to walk up the steps of the White House and say the President is an idiot, that FEMA is bungling, that American needs to be put right, kept right?

Indian born Prem Panicker writes fabulous commentary on the Indian cricket team’s outings. His countrymen call his web site on cricket “cricket on steroids.” He is managing editor and editor of India Abroad, the New York-based newspaper for the Indian American community.

Editor’s Note: At the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Carl Schurz told immigrants from Germany how he expected them to fit into American society. The term “melting pot” had not yet been coined, but Carl Schurz fully subscribed to the idea. “ I have always been in favor of a healthy Americanization, but that does not mean a complete disavowal of our German heritage,” Schurz told the immigrants. “Our character should take on the best of that which is American, and combine it with the best of that which is German. By doing this, we can best serve the American people and their civilization.” Pretty good advice to immigrants today. JEC

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