I got into a little Twitter discussion on the subject of what the government may do to shape public opinion and/or withhold information from the public. This was in response to a David French piece defending the Biden Administration over its actions on social media. I couldn’t read the French piece because he’s got me blocked (I’m soooo sad about that…) but the gist of it seems to have been that the government has First Amendment rights and so it can tell people it would like something said, or taken down, and if the private actor then says it, or takes down the offending information, then its all good. This is, of course, absurd. But that didn’t stop people from defending at least the concept if not all details of French’s assertion. And so my little discussion.
My prime assertion is that the government may not shape public opinion nor may it withhold information from the public. My view of the government is very much that it only has authority delegated from us and thus it may not use it’s authority in any way against us (except, of course, when we break the law and cause harm to a fellow citizen; but even there it is using it’s delegated authority to defend the citizen). But in addition to that I asserted that the government may not properly withhold information from us. Once again, it is our government. We own it. It is our employee, as it were. It only has power as we assign to it – and so it can’t possibly hide things from us because we can’t judge it’s conduct unless we know exactly what it is doing. This generated two objections.
To my first point, it was said that my view was simply silly: the President has the Bully Pulpit and so of course can shape public opinion. That, in fact, the government doing what is does must shape public opinion.
My response to that is the President, speaking from his Bully Pulpit, is not doing anything different in kind from what I am doing writing on this blog. To be sure, the President will get a lot more airtime than me, but he is still just stating his views and asking people to agree with him, just as I am. It is a pity that I don’t have a national audience, but no one is actively preventing me from having one. In theory, someone in the MSM could see what I write, decide it is newsworthy, and presto my views are all over the place. The person holding the Presidency has a huge advantage over anyone who doesn’t hold the office in getting a message out – but it is still just getting a message out. We get into a whole different territory when the President is deciding what messages may get out.
It might seem like a small difference, but it is crucial. My rights are not violated if the President’s view that I disagree with is broadcast far and wide. My rights are not violated if the MSM refuses to present my blog post to a national audience. My rights are violated if Biden were to call my internet provider and tell them to shut down my internet access so that I couldn’t post on my blog. And it wouldn’t matter what reason Biden used to justify the ask: he could say I’m a horrible, lying terrorist who no decent person should listen to. Heck, he could prove I’m all that and he’d still be violating my rights. The government must not do any such thing to me or any other citizen. I have access to whatever platforms I can pay or or which provide themselves free to users and the government must never, under any assertion, interfere with my ability to use either a platform I pay for nor one which provides itself free to users. Complete hands off. It doesn’t matter if I’m lying my a** off or slandering people six ways to Sunday: the government, which only has the authority I gave it, must not interfere with my lawful actions.
To the second objection: what about military secrets or information related to an on-going criminal investigation? Surely the government must be able to keep that from us, right?
Once again, it is our government. It must justify itself to us. We own it and must know what it is doing in our name. Saying the government can keep something secret from the citizen is like an employee asserting a right to keep vital information about the job from the employer. We have to know – how else can we decide if our interests are being served?
I’ll point out that Lincoln won the Civil War with hostile reporters all over the Union Army. He didn’t have a public affairs office. He said what he wanted to say, gave his orders to the generals and then suffered the pain or enjoyed the praise from each action. I’ve talked about this a bit before – the only purpose secrecy serves it to allow the government to hide things. Usually it’s worst mistakes. How many times have we seen some massive, government screw up only to be blown off by the government saying “we can’t comment on an on-going investigation”? Of course they can’t comment: they screwed up. And now they’re just trying to bury it until time passes and people forget about it. “Military security” might as well mean “we messed up and won’t tell you”. As for criminal investigations – not talking about the ongoing investigations meant that things like reports of young, Arab men taking flying lessons in the USA didn’t come to public notice.
Certainly there is a risk to both military and police action if it is all done out in the open but I think that the risk to liberty is greater. And my bet is that for every police or military loss due to disclosure we’d gain ten victories because screw ups aren’t hidden and are fixed in a timely manner. But even if you could show that openness is a net loser, we still must insist upon it. Once again: our government. It is doing things in our name. Things which may cost us our lives and our fortunes. Things which we are morally responsible to God for. We simply have to know.
And by knowing and by preventing the government from interfering with us, we shall be Citizens. We shall carry out the primary activity of Democracy which is not voting: it is self rule. It is deciding what will happen and then watching as our delegates in government carry out our instructions, and punishing them if they get it wrong.
And in the end, either we, the Citizens rule or the Government rules – and tells us what we can say, and hides information from us which could make the government look bad. For myself, I prefer to be a Citizen.
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