The First Amendment is the guarantor of all other liberties protected by the Constitution. The reason for this is simple: open public debate helps bring wide scale attention to other constitutional abuses. Cut off critical debate and abuses go underground. Case in point this week: the Food and Drug Administration.
Besides the fruitless task of trying to purify all food and drugs across the U.S., the FDA has taken on a new role: suppressing dissent and criticism. This weekend, the New York Times released details that the FDA built an “enemies list” after spying on Agency employees to determine which employees or members of the public were critical of its operations.
To read the FDA’s super-secret enemies’ list is to enter the paranoid world of secret police. One memo excerpt listed “Possible Future Concerns” and included the possibility of employee contact with the news organization Frontline. A little transparency, it would seem, is bad for the FDA’s soul.
Another memo illustrated the FDA snooping through emails “among Actors indicating a collaborative plan to produce a document defamatory to HHS/FDA” and its connection to Congressman Van Hollen’s office. The documents go on to describe individuals as “point men” and include exaggerated concerns about their “constant communication,” especially with the press. In spy-speak only the FDA could dream up, “Actor 20 was referred to Actor 1 by Actor 3, Actor 21 has been referred to Actor 1 by Actor 2.” And you thought the TSA was bad?
Oddly enough, federal law protects whistleblowers from exactly this sort of harassment and intimidation. The First Amendment would offer robust protection too, if it weren’t a relic long forgotten in Washington. Eavesdropping, keystroke logging software, and hacking are all no-no’s, especially when there is no evidence of criminal behavior by otherwise free individuals.
Many Americans instinctively understand that government “oversight” of speech is a horrific idea. Unfortunately, the campaign finance reform lobby generates great emotional fervor about the magnificent ends government can reach when allowed to tinker with public speech. Corruption, eliminated; negative speech, done away with; trust in government, attained! But it usually shies away from historical facts—that government uses these powers to suppress dissent, silence the unpopular, and mute political opponents. As the reform lobby sings the manifold benefits of happy disclosure, government abuses multiply when people are silenced.
Suppose you were an FDA employee. How willing would you be to make (publicly disclosed) contributions to political candidates who oppose the Agency’s operations? If you supplied the FDA’s cafeteria with food, would you be so keen to privately associate with others intent on reforming the Agency knowing the FDA’s operatives are combing over your daily movements? Or might you just try your best to be meek, silent, and unnoticed? True enough, such a system might bring about “positive” speech and paint a happy veneer of confidence in government and the FDA’s operations. But it would do so at the beck and call of government thugs, not as a result of a healthy civil society.
While cheerleading over “disclosure” and the supposed good of campaign finance reform continues, it is important to remember how government really acts when it manages our speech. The FDA example is just the most recent to show that “mere disclosure” is far-reaching, invasive, and deeply damaging. As the “mere disclosure” trend continues, Americans will be forced to be silent or applaud their government like subdued marionettes lest they otherwise face retribution. Whether overseen by the FEC or the FDA, the time has come to put an end to spying on other Americans who are audacious enough to exercise their First Amendment freedoms.