The first amendment’s fine print
Since the penning of the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech has been considered a basic American freedom, but recent headlines are showing that this is not the case when going up against big organizations.
Freedom of speech has long been one of the most important tools to Americans in looking to ward off oppression. If not for the first amendment, much of America's historical triumphs such as the civil rights movement and the series of protests that ended the Vietnam War would have looked quite different. It is what allows for the diversity of opinion in this country that has made America a world leader in progressive thought and at the risk of sounding cliche, been an instrumental component of what has fueled the U.S.' reputation as "the land of the free."
This is why recent news about the state of press freedom in the country has been such a blow to one the great pillars on which the ideological framework of the U.S. was built. Two recent headlines in particular have been particularly damaging to the country – the Bradley Manning ruling and the introduction of the overlooked Ag-Gag law.
Bradley Manning found guilty
The case involving private Bradley Manning, in which he was accused of indirectly aiding the enemy by leaking prohibited information to WikiLeaks has been well documented. While Manning was found not guilty for the most severe accusation, the aforementioned aiding of the enemy, he was still found guilty on 19 other charges, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, Manning had been furiously pursued by the American government. He was treated as a spy by the White House and effectively convicted as one after being found guilty under the Espionage Act – a piece of legislation that was drafted in 1917, according to the news source.
The idea of calling Manning a spy will catch some people off guard, as the term brings back notions deep government infiltration and reporting home with intimate secrets. However, the function that WikiLeaks has served in the past has been that of a watch dog to keep ruling bodies in check and provide transparency for the greater public.
This particular trial shares some similarities with one from decades ago – the Watergate trials. Only in this case it was the President who was on trial because of information leaked to the greater public, not the other way around. This begs the question, what happened between almost 40 years ago and now that could have so dramatically reversed these positions?
The Ag-Gag laws
A recent story in the Nation explains the frustrations of a 25 year old animal rights activist who filmed a sick cow being pushed into a slaughter house in Utah. She filmed this particular instance from public land onto the property that was only obstructed by a barbed wire fence. The news source explains that she was brought up on charges for violation of a law modeled after a lobby's model legislation known as The Animal Ecological Terrorism Act.
While the charges were eventually dropped the idea that they could even be brought about simply by filming on a public land is a scary thought. Part of what makes the first amendment so important is that it works to protect the rights of individual citizens against larger, more powerful organizations. However, as these recent trials have indicated, this protection is danger of being lost to these same powers that it was designed to protect against. If they continue to impose their will on single individuals in such a way the concept of individual liberty itself could be lost.
Fortunately people continue to express their outrage, be it online or in the press. By exercising their right to do so in criticism of the government, many people are showing that they are not willing to part with the right the First Amendment has allowed them.