Free speech squelched during wartime

· Sep 23, 2001 Tweet

After making a controversial comment on Politically Incorrect, usually unapologetic host Bill Maher gave his first-ever apology to the American public for calling U.S. military attacks cowardly.

In another show of sensitivity, ABC News has decided not to show any footage of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center unless they deem it absolutely essential. Rumors of censorship and First Amendment violations are rampant, even spurring radio corporation Clear Communications to issue a public statement that they have not banned certain songs from airplay after rumors to the contrary.

In light of such actions, many Americans are wondering how freedom of speech will be affected and worrying about First Amendment violations.

American Civil Liberties Union’s Wisconsin Executive Direction Chris Ahmuty insists this is a normal reaction in times of war. However, Americans should not be afraid to express any and all opinions and to report First Amendment violations.

“When you have a situation like this, as we have in the past, free speech has suffered,” Ahmuty said. “People who dissent may have their free speech violated.”

At this point there have been no violations reported to the Wisconsin ACLU, and the federal government has not imposed any direct restrictions on what can be printed or spoken.

However, the government has the right to withhold information from the press and society. The First Amendment merely gives the press the right to publish information they do acquire.

UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs explained the system of withholding information from the press in times of war.

“In sensitive military actions, the government does have a right to be secretive, and should not divulge everything,” Downs said. “But the press needs to check this power by publishing what it gets its hands on, unless there is a good possibility that the national interest will be compromised.”

Nevertheless, many media outlets, like ABC News, are not publishing and broadcasting certain information and images in an attempt to be respectful to the victims of the attacks as well as to satisfy advertisers, as Bill Maher’s apology demonstrated. Discretion in what to publish or broadcast has been left up to the individual news outlets.

“There’s been a careful approach to the story that combines aggressiveness in getting info out with the awareness that we should not be speculating and we should not be alarming people,” CBS News President Andrew Heyward told the Washington Post.

Ahmuty said he is worried more about self-censorship by the news media than potential government restrictions.

“Another serious issue is self-censorship because there are so few news outlets due to huge media conglomerates. The integrity of the news process is brought into question,” Ahmuty said.

In the aftermath of the attack, Congress is attempting to pass the Cyber Security Information Act, which would allow the government to monitor private email, as well as anti-leaks legislation to curb the flow of critical information to the public.

Both Downs and Ahmuty agree that these restrictions are normal courses of action in times of war.

“[The ACLU] hopes that America has learned from the past, and the public recognizes that free speech is an asset in times of war,” Ahmuty said.


This article was published Sep 23, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Sep 23, 2001 at 12:00 am


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