The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

December 31, 2012

Marta Mossburg, columnist: Free speech must be defended, even amid tragedy

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, it seems crude to speak of rights and facts. With the unfulfilled lives of 20 children and six adults mercilessly gunned down foremost in our collective consciousness, it is much more soothing to talk about safety and stopping the violence and to let those in authority do their job.

But this is when those who care about civil liberties have most to fear, because those who would strip us of rights know it is easier to regulate and legislate after tragedies. Psychology tells us why: Humans crave coherence and neat solutions, even when none are available.

Think of the Patriot Act, passed six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It gave the government broad new powers to surveil individuals and search their property — with no means to test whether the new regulations would thwart terrorists. Or think of the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010 in response to the financial crisis. Its regulations ensured bailouts for the biggest banks, which are larger now than they were before the Great Recession.

And as President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

It is in that light that we should view Connecticut State Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance’s comments about “misinformation.”

In a news conference Dec. 16, he said that anyone who posts misleading information online on social media sites about the Newtown case would be “investigated, statewide and federally, and prosecution will take place when people perpetrating this information are identified.”

He added: “All information relative to this case is coming from these microphones.”

It’s horrible that anyone would consider posing as 20-year-old shooter Adam Lanza, try to disrupt the investigation of the murders or cause further heartbreak for the victims’ families.

But what kind of precedent does it set if the government gets to determine what is “misinformation”?

For starters, government is frequently the source of lies and obfuscation at every level — and not just in places like Russia, China and North Korea. Think of the official response to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Libyan Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in September. According to the Obama administration, an anti-Muslim video incited the violence, which officials knew immediately was not the case.

At the state level, what if governors were able to arbitrate the truth? Before answering, remember that four Illinois governors have spent time in federal prison in the past 50 years.

We already know what happened after Lt. Vance spoke. Social media website Facebook suspended accounts of those whose versions of the Newtown massacre did not match the government one, officially because users violated company policies but more likely to avert criminal prosecution. Facebook is a public company and can set its own user rules, but its actions are a reminder of how little it takes to diminish free speech, which is constantly under threat. College speech codes that outlaw offending others and the dominant culture of political correctness that pushes people to self-censor for fear of being labeled a sexist, racist or homophobe are just two other examples.

Lt. Vance, no doubt, through his remarks wanted to protect the families of the victims from emotional harm and prevent new violence from spinning off of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But for him to claim that the government alone is in charge of information on Newtown and for a major corporation like Facebook to capitulate show how easy it is for government to control speech. Those targeted could sue, but how many people have the money or time to defend themselves appropriately? Our system depends on those in power respecting the rights of the governed. When that breaks down, it is not only the people targeted who suffer, but all of us in the form of more self-censorship by private individuals and businesses.

We are not Russia or China, but only because we have people who vigorously defend our rights. Now should be one of those times, even as we mourn.

Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs and about politics in Maryland, where she lives. Read her work at www.martamossburg.com. Write her at marta@martamossburg.com.

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