Sunday, January 20, 2013

Do We Have Freedom of Speech?

     Freedom of speech...we think of this as the epitome of American rights.
     But--can we really say whatever we want?
     If you happen to work for one of our government's many agencies, you may not be able to speak freely about your job unless you say how good it is.  And if federal prosecutors charge you with one or a whole slew of crimes, upon which hang huge penalties, such as jail time, and then the government says it will drop those charges prior to trial if you pay a financial sum and sign a gag order...doesn't the gag order override your First Amendment rights?  Why should it be the case that government agents can make deals with you to "sell" your right to freedom of speech.
     Isn't that something like making a deal to buy one of your kidneys, or a lung?  Should it be allowed?
     I don't think so...not in this country.  But it is.
     Would you sell a kidney for $20,000?   People do it--in other parts of the world, in inferior countries.  Would you sell your freedom of speech for, say, $100,000?  It happens, when governments become corrupt.  
     Not only are you allowed to sell your right to speak about certain experiences, but you can be  strong-armed, by our government, into selling off your First amendment rights.  For a thousand dollars?  For a hundred thousand, or a million?  For a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card?
     As I mull over the pros and cons of participating, as a lead plaintiff, in a group lawsuit against the government, petitioning for change in the way federal prosecutors go about investigating whistleblower reports, petitioning against the harm they do (because politics, not ethics is their first priority), I wonder why so many people are cowed into settling cases with government agents rather than fighting for their rights.
     John Stacks, owner of Mountain Pure Water, tells me that since his youtube video, "Rampant InJustice," he has spoken with a hundred-fifty or so people who have been victims, like him--like me--of "prosecutorial overreach."  Their businesses have been raided, their Miranda rights ignored, their reputations ruined, their emotions thrown into the flux of post-traumatic stress, and their solvency threatened.  Nevertheless, John says, he isn't able to persuade the majority to do anything besides complain.  He can't get them to join us, repositioning themselves as plaintiffs--not defendants!--against the government.  They feel wronged--nevertheless, they're scared.
     Whatever the nature of the charges the prosecutors think they can drum up in our cases, including mine, their methods are wrong, unconstitutional, and need to be made right.  There's a mechanism for doing this, "The Petition Clause," a scion of the First Amendment, and we must rally together behind it, when the government steps out of line.  Otherwise, we're sliding into a world where our civil rights are nothing but ink marks on paper.  We have to defend what's ours, or we lose it. 
     Here's the text 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.

     In 1791, the Bill of Rights was passed because the Constitution, without it, didn't guarantee American citizens their civil liberties.  But the Bill of Rights means nothing unless people react when the rights they're guaranteed are breached.  If we settle with the government, sealing our mouths forevermore about the wrongdoing committed against us, we cave into fear and allow for the slow, inevitable erosion of all these rights we consider central to our way of life.   
     Why do government officials insist on gag orders?  Why not let citizens speak freely about their experiences at the hands of our justice system?  It has to be because the government has something to hide, in every one of these cases.  If its agents did their jobs faultlessly, they would have no reason to gag their victims.  If they followed the law, and didn't misuse their powers as a matter of course, and if they were driven by principles rather than self-aggrandizement, they could stand up to anything the rest of us have to say about them.   
     In the 1990's the federal government became aware that the media happens to be a powerful tool, and should be "managed."  Since that time, if you work for a government agency, like OSHA, or the FBI, or the CIA, it could cost you your job to voice criticism about the policies in your workplace, or the manner in which officials hush misguided decisions and corruption.
     It seems the government has an image to keep up, just like any big business.  And it has the power to airbrush its exterior, and it has a big police force to punish those who dare to mar the image.  Government officials seem incapable, themselves, of admitting wrong--and just when victims of governmental intemperance are about to go public about those wrongs, they're offered a payoff.
     At least, that's how I understand a decision by so many people--whose businesses, like mine, were raided, whose employees were terrorized, and whose lives have been damaged, irreparably--not to rebel against an overreaching government, using the platform of their First Amendment rights.  Instead, frightened and hoping to put the experience behind them, they settle.  Settling with the government doesn't do the rest of us any good.  It's a form of treason against our country.
     If this is how Americans respond to government abuse, we might as well be in the Soviet Union.  Who will reinstate our Bill of Rights?
     It should be all of us, but courage tends to be in short supply under authoritarian governments, when one party is really all there is, and it's armed, and it knows how to manage populations with propaganda and fear. 

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