A Gag on Free Speech
December 15, 2006
New York Times Editorial
The Bush administration is trampling on the First Amendment and well-established criminal law by trying to use a subpoena to force the American Civil Liberties Union to hand over a classified document in its possession. The dispute is shrouded in secrecy, and very little has been made public about the document, but we do not need to know what’s in it to know what’s at stake: if the government prevails, it will have engaged in prior restraint — almost always a serious infringement on free speech — and it could start using subpoenas to block reporting on matters of vital public concern.
Justice Department lawyers have issued a grand jury subpoena to the A.C.L.U. demanding that it hand over “any and all copies” of the three-and-a-half-page government document, which was recently leaked to the group. The A.C.L.U. is asking a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan to quash the subpoena.
There are at least two serious problems with the government’s action. It goes far beyond what the law recognizes as the legitimate purpose of a subpoena. Subpoenas are supposed to assist an investigation, but the government does not need access to the A.C.L.U.’s document for an investigation since it already has its own copy. It is instead trying to confiscate every available copy of the document to keep its contents secret. The A.C.L.U. says it knows of no other case in which a grand jury subpoena has been used this way.
The subpoena is also a prior restraint because the government is trying to stop the A.C.L.U. in advance from speaking about the document’s contents. The Supreme Court has held that prior restraints are almost always unconstitutional. The danger is too great that the government will overreach and use them to ban protected speech or interfere with free expression by forcing the media, and other speakers, to wait for their words to be cleared in advance. The correct way to deal with speech is to evaluate its legality after it has occurred.
The Supreme Court affirmed these vital principles in the Pentagon Papers case, when it rejected the Nixon administration’s attempts to stop The Times and The Washington Post from publishing government documents that reflected badly on its prosecution of the Vietnam War. If the Nixon administration had been able to use the technique that the Bush administration is trying now, it could have blocked publication simply by ordering the newspapers to hand over every copy they had of the papers.
If the A.C.L.U.’s description of its secret document is correct, there is no legitimate national defense issue. The document does not contain anything like intelligence sources or troop movements, the group says. It is merely a general statement of policy whose release “might perhaps be mildly embarrassing to the government.” Given this administration’s abysmal record on these issues, this case could set a disturbing and dangerous precedent. If the subpoena is enforced, the administration will have gained a powerful new tool for rolling back free-speech rights — one that could be used to deprive Americans of information they need to make informed judgments about their elected leaders’ policies and actions.
Paul Krugman is on vacation.