A Bad Week for the First Amendment

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 11:  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talks to reporters after leaving the Senate GOP policy luncheon at the
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 11: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) talks to reporters after leaving the Senate GOP policy luncheon at the U.S. Captiol December 11, 2012 in Washington, DC. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the Senate Republicans met for their weekly policy luncheon meeting and, with the 'fiscal cliff' looming, said President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats have 'refused to be pinned down on any spending cuts.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If supporters of the right to bear arms have been feeling threatened in recent weeks, supporters of the First Amendment may have even more cause for alarm. This week has seen at least three separate attacks on freedom of expression in this country, two by government officials and one through an act of corporate cowardice.

Earlier this week, it was announced that the Qatar-based news channel, Al Jazeera, had agreed to purchase Current TV for an unspecified sum rumored to be a few hundred million dollars. The Qatari company -- which some critics have accused of being too biased in its reporting -- plans to create a new channel called Al Jazeera America that will compete with the likes of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. At the announcement of that sale, Time Warner Cable (TWC), the second largest cable provider in the U.S., announced that it would no longer carry that channel.

Of course, TWC has the right to determine which channels it wants to carry, and it is under no legal obligation to carry Al Jazeera America. Indeed, there would be little reason to complain about the company's decision if it looked like a simple business decision based on the fact that Current TV has long struggled to sustain an audience. However, given its international reputation, it is entirely possible that Al Jazeera America would have found a broader audience than Current TV. If Time Warner's primary interest is to make money, it should allow Al Jazeera a chance to test itself in the marketplace. That TWC decided to cut the channel immediately upon word of the sale suggests that it is less interested in economics than it is in politics.

A more overtly political suppression of free expression is unfolding in Putnam County, New York, where local officials have refused to provide the White Plains Journal News with the names of that county's pistol permit holders. The newspaper wants to include the names and addresses of those individuals as part of an interactive map they have created for their readers. That map includes the names and addresses of pistol owners in neighboring Westchester and Rockland counties, and was intended to draw attention to the fact that many people are unaware of the number of guns in their neighborhood.

Officials say that privacy and safety are the primary reasons for denying the newspaper's request. That's understandable, but those names are a matter of public record. Until -- and unless -- New York State law is changed in order to shield the names of gun permit holders, no government official has the right to prevent the press from doing its job of reporting public information to its readers. To do so is an abridgment of the First Amendment, and those officials should be held accountable.

The third affront to freedom of expression borders on the absurd. In spite of all of the real business that Congress should be undertaking in these early days of 2013, a group of U.S. Senators that include California Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, and Arizona Republican, John McCain, have called for an investigation into the making Zero Dark Thirty, a Hollywood film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The Senators want an explanation from the CIA about access that the film's screenwriter, Mark Boal, had to agency records.

What has the Senators most up in arms are scenes that seem so suggest that so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" were instrumental in helping to locate bin Laden. That such techniques may have been used shouldn't be controversial. In fact, former Vice-President Dick Cheney proudly told Fox News back in 2011: "I would assume that the enhanced interrogation program that we put in place produced some of the results that led to bin Laden's ultimate capture." In addition to their investigator, the Senators would like a disclaimer placed in the film's credits assuring audiences that nobody was tortured in order to find bin Laden.

It's actions like these that have the U.S. lagging behind so many other industrialized democracies in measurements of freedom of expression. In fact, the U.S. ranks 22nd in the world in terms of press freedom, according to Freedom House. Reporters Without Borders has the U.S. ranked even lower -- in 47th place, a decline of 27 spots since 2010.

About the only recent bright spot in First Amendment rights in the U.S. was yesterday's decision by the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals saying that the police can't pull motorists over for giving them the finger. As victories for civil liberties go, however, that's small comfort given the overall trend toward ever-greater restrictions on Americans' freedom of expression.