The Bill of Rights has, more or less, been under attack from the
second it was ratified as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution
in 1791. Introduced by James Madison, all 10 were created as a way to
protect the rights of individuals and serve as a brake against the
Its taken a real beating for the last half century or so.
The Fourth Amendment, which protects us against unreasonable searches
and seizures, was stomped on pretty good at the beginning of the
modern war on drugs. Courts gave police unprecedented powers to
rummage through all sorts of our possessions absent a warrant, and all
in the name of protecting society. The courts have since backed off a
bit on some of those excesses but have allowed the government to
search pretty much all of our electronic communications in the name of
the war on terrorism.
Our e-mails and phone calls can be routinely trapped, analyzed by
computers and sent along their way, and it can all be done without
permission or warrants. The courts have decided there is no
reasonable expectation of privacy when were communicating in the
ether and, anyway, weve decided the government can do pretty much
anything if they call it part of the war on terrorism.
The Fourth Amendment also shrinks a little more every day in airports
across the country. In fact, the pat-downs we now endure if we dont
want to be scanned would require probable cause or a warrant if a
police officer wanted to conduct such a search out on the street.
The Fifth Amendment, and its clause that prevents the government from
taking our property without proving its for public use and without
just compensation, got creamed by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of
New London in 2005. Taking private property under eminent domain laws
had previously been reserved for schools, roads, water treatment
plants and other construction that served the general public.
In Kelo, the court held the city of New London, Connecticut, could
condemn private property for the benefit of a private developer
because the subsequent redevelopment would generate more tax revenues
and jobs than the residential neighborhood it was replacing and that
would serve the public good.
The NRA would have us believe the Second Amendment has also been under
perpetual attack. States rights advocates believe the 10th Amendment
has been ignored for decades. Our 5th Amendment rights against
self-incrimination were just dealt a blow by the Supreme Court when it
ruled a suspect must affirmatively invoke the right to remain silent.
Every amendment has its champions and they all believe they are under
Theres little question, however, that our freedom of speech has been
skating on paper thin ice for a very long time. It started with John
Adams onerous Sedition Act of 1798 (repealed in 1801), and another
hit in 1918 with another Sedition Act (repealed in 1920) and has been
buffeted ever since.
There always seems to be someone out there who wants to stop us from
saying something or revealing something they dont like.
Which brings us right up to WikiLeaks and its creepy founder, Julian
Assange. Wiki-Leaks has famously released a series of documents some
would rather they had not. The first gave us an honest look at the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the second wave included hundreds of
thousands of cables from diplomats essentially gossiping and whining
about other diplomats. The Obama Administration wants to silence
Assange and shut down his web site. Others would like him to be
arrested but havent found any laws that suit their purposes just yet.
Assange, a former journalist and computer hacker from Australia, sees
his WikiLeaks site as a kind of clearinghouse for whistle blowers and
those interested in uncovering wrongdoing by various governments and
corporations. Theres no evidence hes paying people for information
nor doing anything to induce anyone to commit crimes to obtain the
documents being exposed. And theres no evidence hes getting rich
Assange received Amnesty Internationals Media Award in 2009 and was
the Readers Choice for Time Magazines Person of the Year for 2010.
Hes also wanted by Swedish authorities on a sexual assault charge
(he denies it), was recently arrested in London, and is awaiting
extradition to Sweden.
There is no denying that WikiLeaks has served a useful purpose. They
gave us our first look at internal documents from the Church of
Scientology, shed some daylight on the procedures being used on
detainees at Guantanamo Bay, uncovered government-sponsored murders in
Kenya and toxic dumping, including nuclear waste, in and off the coast
However, Assanges rampant paranoia, legal troubles and his obvious
dislike of the United States make him a ripe target for those wishing
to silence him. Of course, they are doing it in the name of national
security. This, despite the fact that he has broken no laws and no
one has yet demonstrated how anything on WikiLeaks has compromised
Plenty of people have been embarrassed by the leaks, but so what? It
is in our best interests to know what our government and corporate
institutions are doing. Legally providing that information,
uncomfortable though it may be, is in the best traditions of our First
The real danger here is not Julian Assange but our ongoing willingness
to abandon, one after another, our rights guaranteed in the
Constitution in the name of security. This time its the bedrock of
the First Amendment thats on the line.
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, Those who would give up
essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve
neither liberty nor safety.
It was true in 1775. One could argue were even less deserving now.