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Army Attempts to Redefine Free Speech

When does political speech become a crime punishable by imprisonment? When the Army doesn't like what it hears. One journalist shares the battle she and her source face against censorship.
 
 
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In May of this year, I conducted an independent news interview with Ehren Watada while working as a freelance journalist. Watada is a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to deploy to Iraq. In his interview, Lieutenant Watada asserted that he had a duty as a U.S. Army officer to evaluate the legality of his orders and conduct himself accordingly. For this reason he said that he could not participate in the Iraq War because it was "manifestly illegal" and that his participation would make him a party to war crimes.

In June, Lieutenant Watada made national headlines when he refused to deploy to Iraq.

Lieutenant Watada continues to report for duty at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington while awaiting a February 2007 court-martial on one charge of "missing movement" and four charges of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." Each of the latter four charges is based entirely on political speech. If convicted on all charges, Lieutenant Watada could spend up to six years in prison.

As an element of their prosecution, the U.S. Army has cobbled together portions of my interview with Lieutenant Watada and, together, these statements comprise the foundation of one charge of conduct unbecoming an officer. To substantiate this alleged crime, the U.S. Army has subpoenaed me to testify on behalf of the prosecution against my source. The dynamics of the situation are clear. When the military chooses to prosecute a soldier for expressing dissenting political positions to a member of the press, that journalist is unwittingly and inevitably forced into the middle of the conflict.

Among multiple issues this raises, the circumstance begs a central question: Doesn't it fly in the face of the First Amendment to compel a journalist to participate in a government prosecution against a source, particularly in matters related to personal political speech?

The intention is obvious. In the case against Lieutenant Watada, the U.S. Army is attempting to use a journalist as an investigative tool for their prosecution. In this case, the journalist is me. And I wholly object to this attempt at eliciting my forced and unconstitutional participation.

Reporting the News
It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government or participate in government prosecutions. At a time when much of the public already questions the integrity of the media and its perceived collusion with government bodies, I am repelled by an approach that jeopardizes my credibility and compels my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion.

It is a stunning irony that the Army actually seeks my testimony -- the testimony of a journalist -- in a case against free speech itself. The fact is U.S. v. Watada could set new legal precedent regarding the parameters of acceptable speech in the military. What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech?

When journalists are subpoenaed to confirm the veracity of their reporting, they typically agree to this limited request. What makes this case different is that the thing in question is the political nature of Lieutenant Watada's speech. Participating in the U.S. Army's court-martial on even the most limited level forces me to help build the U.S. Army's case against my source and contribute to an act of suppression against the media's ability to report the news.

Chilling Speech/Chilling Journalism
"I started asking why are we dying," said Lieutenant Watada in our interview. "Why are we losing limbs? For what? I listened to the President and his deputies say we were fighting for democracy; we were fighting for a better Iraq. I started to think about those things. Are those things the real reasons why we are there; the real reasons we were dying? But I felt there was nothing to be done and this administration just continually violated the law to serve their purpose, and there was nothing to stop them."

As a journalist, it is not my place or position to either support or criticize the thoughts and expressions of an interview subject. My job is to record those thoughts and expressions accurately and provide a public forum for that individual to be heard. This is what I did in the case of Lieutenant Watada. He was willing to talk. I was willing to listen. If the Army succeeds in turning me into an arm of their investigation, it would be a prime instance of chilling not only press freedom but also free speech. It is a slippery slope that bears watching and requires vigilance on any occasion when challenges are brought forth. In an environment where journalists are designated as agents of the state against political speech, whistle blowers and dissenting voices will be less likely to speak publicly, and journalists less inclined to cover them.

In this case, it seems clear that the U.S. Army is attempting to redefine the parameters of acceptable speech and to classify dissent as a punishable offense. And this extends to the community of journalists who record such contrary expressions. By the U.S. Army's attempt to force me to take the witness stand against my source, it unequivocally sends a message that dissent will neither be tolerated nor permitted. Utilize your Constitutionally-guaranteed speech rights and you face prison time. What rational war resister would agree to speak with me or any other member of the media if jail was a likely result?

Similarly, knowledge of government meddling in the affairs of the press chills a reporter's willingness to cover controversial topics. It is the obligation of the free press to give voice to all perspectives on a topic, and to treat all sides of a story as deserving of consideration. As a journalist, if the government has a free hand to destroy my credibility and prevent me from doing my job, what incentive do I have to cover unpopular topics?

Stifling the Press is Not in Public Interest
A free press is the life's blood of a healthy democracy; acting as a check and balance to government power and fostering meaningful and informed debate about the workings of our civil institutions. Only when complete information is available can people participate in and make informed decisions about the society in which they live. It is in the public interest that the media foster the free exchange of ideas regarding important social, political and cultural issues. On any seminal topic, the public is bound to hold a broad range of opinions. It is the job of the press to amplify these varied perspectives and to facilitate dialog between and about disparate points of view.

When the press cannot or does not reflect the vibrant and varied perspectives existing within our society, it is reduced to a simple transcriber of government and corporate press releases. The record of existing dissent is erased, and a dumbed-down, homogenized version of "The American Experience" is all that's left in its place.

We've seen what happens when the press does not represent full and thorough debate. Major media outlets have admitted reporting the Administration's prognostications regarding the Iraq War without question and as a result failed in their duty to the American public. We need more debate, not less. Now more than ever, it is the duty of the media to return to their original purpose.

Press Freedom Under Subpoena
It is my firm belief that the public fully deserved to hear Lieutenant Watada's concerns regarding the Iraq War, and to consider them thoughtfully and fully. This was the basis of our interview in May. Lieutenant Watada's story was eminently newsworthy and I proceeded under that general journalistic premise.

Additionally, I stand firmly by a conviction I share with many: a member of the press should never be placed in the position of aiding a government prosecution. This goes against the grain of even the most basic understanding of the First Amendment's free press guarantee and the expectations of a democracy that relies upon a free flow of information and perspectives without fear of censor or retribution.

You may ask: do I want to be sent to prison by the U.S. Army for not cooperating with their prosecution of Lieutenant Watada? My answer: Absolutely not.

You may also ask: would I rather contribute to the prosecution of a news source for discussing newsworthy perspectives on a current affair of national concern?

That is the question I wholly object to having before me in the first place.

A shorter version of this article ran in Editor and Publisher on December 30.

Sarah Olson is an independent journalist and radio producer based in Oakland, CA. She can be reached at solson75@.yahoo.com. Get the latest on her case at http://www.freepresswg.org.