According to the Wall Street Journal, President Obama in China argued in favor of Internet freedom, with arguments that should apply to all First Amendment freedoms:
Speaking to a selected group of Chinese students at the beginning of his first visit to China, Mr. Obama said that the free flow of information makes societies stronger and holds political leaders accountable. People in positions of power may bristle at criticism, he said, but open criticism “makes our democracy stronger, and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear.”
Mr. Obama’s words, however, likely reached few Chinese. In contrast to visits by his two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Mr. Obama’s talk was not broadcast live on national television.
The Chinese typically respond to criticisms with charges of hypocrisy, and while I’m unsympathetic to them on that account, Americans might do well to pay attention to the charges this time. Consider that this President has:
- Proposed that the rest of the world adopt pre-emptive “notice and termination” rules for Internet content, and done so in a secret clause in a new international copyright treaty
- Used the bully pulpit to browbeat press critics, including Fox News, Rick Santelli, and others
- Shielded official political advisers from press scrutiny by appointing them as unvetted “czars”
- Proposed that citizens inform the White House of fishy “opinions I don’t want to hear” regarding health care
- Hinted broadly about “hitting back twice as hard” against administration critics
- Repeatedly told those critics to stop talking and that “the time for debate is over” – at the beginning of the legislative process
- Has first supported, now appears to be backing off, a UN resolution pushed by the Islamic Conference banning “blasphemy”
- Has appointed a “Diversity Czar” who openly admires Hugo Chavez’s approach to the media and wants to bring racial politics to the FCC
Administration apologists will argue that such examples only prove the President’s point – that a free press circumscribes presidential power. But even if that were his point – and I don’t think it was – it’s not as though the President has been supportive of such a press. Instead, he and his administration see it as an evil that needs to be suffered through and circumscribed, not a positive good.
As usual, universal principles are really about how they affect Obama: they make him hear opinions he doesn’t want to hear. That, of course, is only part of the value of a free press. The people have the right to petition the government, which would produce the same effect. Indeed, the open comment period that most federal bureaucracies have during their rule-making process produces the same effect, but it’s hardly the core of the First Amendment. Monarchies and autocracies throughout history have had mechanisms for wise rulers to take the temperature of their subjects and their various interest groups when forming policy.
No, freedom of speech is about letting people communicate with each other. It’s about organizing opposition and support in a pluralistic society, with a separation of powers and a federal system. It’s a key part of the process of self-government, where citizens debate each other about issues and policies and principles. And while it’s certainly a part of our elected leaders’ exercise of power, it’s much more often a check and a limitation on that power.
The President of a free people should know better.
UPDATE: Of course, I should have known better than to forget the process by which Congress has passed multi-thousand-page bills this year, in virtual secrecy, without decent public review of their content, and that in direct contravention to promised transparency. Free and open debate works best when it disseminates actual information, something that the Democratic Congressional leadership has striven mightily to prevent.