Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

A New Blog on Free Speech and the Media

This is the time of the season for being fed up with politics and not least, of course, with the presidential election. (Actually, I reached that point a while ago). Part of my frustration comes from the candidates who appear willing to say anything, no matter how unrealistic, to win the White House. But part of my frustration lies also with the media who don’t hold the candidates to any standards that might inform voters who care enough to read and listen. This is all the more so since we are experiencing a financial crisis that elicits nothing more from the candidates than a promise “to fix the economy,” whatever that might mean. Shouldn’t the media demand more on our behalf?

Writing for a new blog from The Media Institute, Patrick Maines helps makes sense of my frustration. He points out that the media are following their practice of covering the financial crisis (and the presidential election) like a horse race. Yes, the crisis is helping Obama, but is that the most important thing to know right now? Maines writes:

The stark fact is that the national news media have underreported and misreported virtually every important aspect of our national nightmare: how we got into it, how we can prevent it from happening again, and, most importantly, how we can escape its worst effects now – and how our national leaders can help us.

Maines’ criticism is apt and convincing. The Media Institute, the home of the blog, works on free speech issues and receives substantial support from media companies. Of course, free speech does not necessarily mean good or even useful speech. But the answer to such shortcomings is more speech as Maines proves in his post.

I am intrigued that Maines criticizes the media, a pretty independent stance when you think about it. This blog bears watching as we head into a new administration that seems likely to offer many challenges to freedom of speech.

Twitter Terror — Laughable? Or Is There a Lesson?

I was amused to read that a draft Army intelligence report identified micro-blogging service Twitter as a potential tool for terrorists. On the other hand, it’s regrettable that this terrorism mania persists to foster this kind of report and media attention. There’s no distinct terror threat from Twitter.

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with blogs. On Twitter you can publish ever-so-brief thoughts, giving your readers (or “followers”) ambient awareness of what’s on your mind or what you’re doing. Here’s an example: the Cato Institute’s Twitter feed, which I encourage you to follow. WashingtonWatch.com has one too. And CNN. And former Cato intern Felix Ling.

Now, to use of Twitter by terrorists: Sure, it’s possible, just like it’s possible with any communications medium. Twitter is right up there with telephones, pen and paper, email, SMS, and smoke signals as a potential tool for terrorism. Each of these media have different properties which make them more or less susceptible to use for wrongdoing — and more or less protective of legitimate privacy for the law-abiding.

Like most common digital communications, Twitter is a pretty weak medium for planning bad things. Copies of every post are distributed far and wide — and all “Tweets” are housed pretty much permanently by a single organization.

If you want to get caught doing something wrong, use Twitter to plan it.

Securing against terrorism is hard because terrorists don’t wear uniforms or occupy territory. Their tools are our tools: sneakers, sandwiches, credit cards, cars, steak knives, box cutters, cameras, cell phones, driver’s licenses, Web sites, Napster, Friendster, Facebook, spinach. The list goes on and on and on.

(Yes, spinach — it grows terrorists’ muscles.)

The problem is determining what things in our society have a proximate relationship to terrorism that is greater than their relationship to all the good things we do with them. Box cutters were integral to the 9/11 attacks, but they are used by millions of people every day for wonderful purposes, so we haven’t pursued restrictions on, or monitoring of, box cutters (beyond airplanes, of course). Highly enriched uranium can be used to do a lot of damage. There is exceedingly little chance of it being used by terrorists, but it’s prudent to pursue controls on this material and monitor for peoply trying to acquire it.

Twitter and other digital media are used billions of times a day for all the good things law-abiding people do. There is also a small chance that they’ll be used for wrongdoing, and we have rules about what to do when that chance arises. Alas, Supreme Court cases under the Fourth Amendment are a little too permissive these days.

The chance of Twitter being used by terrorists (real ones, serious ones) is very small and not newsworthy. We’re all relatively inexperienced with the security dilemmas created by terrorism, and it’s appropriate to give a brief thought to how all the implements and infrastructure in society might be used to do damage. In summary, the production of a report on Twitter terror is just shy of silly. The media attention paid to the question: fully silly.

The Promise of Divided Government

Former Catoite Radley Balko argues that the Republican Party deserves to lose because it “has exiled its Goldwater-Reagan wing and given up all pretense of any allegiance to limited government.” He goes on to detail all the sordid ways in which the GOP has indeed betrayed its allegedly pro-free market, limited government beliefs and thus “forfeited its right to govern.”

I don’t disagree with any of Balko’s analysis, but I do take issue with his conclusion for one very simple (some would say banal) reason: The best way to limit the federal Leviathan is to have Congress and the presidency controlled by different parties. See, for example, the relevant parts of former Catoite Stephen Slivinski’s book, Buck Wild: How the Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government.  Slivinski calculates that when one party controls the political branches, the growth of real per capita government spending is 3.4%. Under divided government, the rate is 1.5%. And it doesn’t much matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in sole charge: 3.3% government growth under Democrats vs. 3.6% under Republicans. The most libertarian combination seems to be a Democratic president with a Republican Congress, where the average rate of government growth is 0.4%.  (This is also the rarest alignment in modern times, so it may be less significant statistically.)

In short, yes the Bush administration, enabled by a corrupt (ideologically and otherwise) Republican Congress, has been the second coming of LBJ.  But rather than reward a party whose leaders in Congress have even lower approval ratings than President Bush with unified control of government, it might be better for limited government if the Dems gained in Congress (preferably without a filibuster-proof Senate because judges and international treaties are my pet issues) while losing the White House.  Which isn’t to say that this would necessarily be better than a President Obama with a Republican Congress, just that the chance of the GOP taking over even one house of Congress is only slightly greater than the chance that Bob Barr will be elected president.

Sarah in Charge?

Some in the media (or at least Keith Olbermann at MSNBC) are ridiculing Sarah Palin’s recent answer to a third-grader’s question of “What does the Vice President do?”  The part of her response that seems to have people in a tizzy is the following: “[A] Vice President has a really great job, because not only are they there to support the President agenda, they’re like a team member, the teammate to that President. But also, they’re in charge of the United States Senate, so if they want to they can really get in there with the Senators and make a lot of good policy changes… ” (emphasis added).  Haha, Ms. Caribou Barbie Palin, the wags chortle, don’t you know that the Vice President is only mentioned four times in the Constitution (two of which mentions are in later amendments) and has no power but to break ties in the Senate?

Well, that’s right, except it’s not.  While true that the only formal power the Constitution (specifically Article I, Section 3) gives the VP is to cast the deciding vote when the Senate is deadlocked, the Constitution is understandably silent as to what else the VP can do with his or her time.  Yet nobody would deny that Dick Cheney has been an extremely powerful figure, and not because of any explicit powers but because he has aggressively pushed the Bush Administration’s agenda and lobbied senators (particularly Republicans).  So sure, the VP can have a big effect on policy.

Moreover, the VP is the “President of the Senate,” which is sort of like being in charge – if indeed anyone is in charge of that motley group of wannabe presidents.  This isn’t “in charge” the way a president or CEO is “in charge” – the VP can’t fire senators or force them to vote a given way or veto their bills – but I don’t think anyone can reasonably construe Palin’s comments to imply that.  The most reasonable construction is that she was trying to explain in her own words what being “President of the Senate” means, and could’ve done a lot worse than characterizing it as being “in charge.”

You can read more on this issue in this CBS News posting, which further quotes my thoughts on the matter.

Criticisms Leveled against U.S. Approach to Counterterrorism

The New York Times reports this morning on criticisms leveled by two high-ranking U.K. counterterrorism officials against the United States’ current approach to counterterrorism.

It’s worth having the insights of people who have prosecuted suspects in all the major terrorist attacks in the U.K. since 2005, achieving a 90 percent conviction rate, so you should read the whole thing.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité - A Package Deal

News that France will suspend football (soccer) games at which “La Marseillaise” has been booed reveals how the famous credo of that country has fallen into disuse.

A liberal approach toward speech - giving Tunisians in France the liberté to boo their country of residence - would communicate powerfully that France is stronger than such slights - yet still welcoming of Tunisians as frères et soeurs.

The booing wouldn’t last long, as the Tunisians would recognize and appreciate the égalité légale accorded them by France.

Fin.