By Trevor Timm
As politicians drape themselves in the flag of free speech and freedom of the press in response to the tragic murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, they’ve also quickly moved to stifle the same rights they claim to love. Government officials on both sides of the Atlantic are now renewing their efforts to stop NSA reform as they support free speech-chilling surveillance laws that will affect millions of citizens that have never been accused of terrorism.
This is an entirely predictable response – as civil liberties advocates noted shortly after Wednesday’s tragic attack, the threat of terrorism has led to draconian laws all over the world over the last decade – but this time around, the speed and breadth by which politicians praised free speech out of one side of their mouths, while moving to curtail rights out of the other, has been quite breathtaking.
UK prime minister David Cameron immediately expressed solidarity with “defending the freedom of the press”. Let’s put aside for a second that his government has shown the kind of disdain for press freedoms that is usually reserved for the most authoritarian of regimes. (Detaining the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s under the Terrorism Act, criminally investigating the Guardian for producing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, and regularly imprisoning social media users are just a few of his government’s recent assaults on speech.)
Not even a day after the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo’s office, MI5 wasted no time demanding even more surveillance powers. It’s hard to understand how much more surveillance could even be done beyond the agency’s current abilities, given that it can force tech companies to hand over virtually anything it wants without a warrant and that GCHQ, the British spy agency, is even free to target lawyers and journalists. But demand it has.
Across the Atlantic in the US, literally within moments of when the Charlie Hebdo attack first became public, conservative members of Congress jumped at the chance for political exploitation. As the District Sentinel reported, multiple Senators called for meager NSA reforms in the wake of the Snowden revelations to be completely disregarded, and for an increase in the intelligence budget, and that the Obama administration should stop trying to close Guantánamo. (By the way, the US intelligence budget was already over $50bn last year and remains far and away the largest in the world, and even George W Bush called Guantánamo “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.”.)
Former NSA director (and prolific liar) Michael Hayden went on national television to argue the NSA collecting the phone records of every single American “doesn’t look so scary now”, despite the reality that its decade-old mass surveillance program that violates the privacy of hundreds of millions of people every day has never having stopped a terrorist attack. Similarly, the New York Post called on the NYPD to re-institute its suspicionless surveillance program that blanketed the city’s entire Muslim population, while forgetting to mention that in the years it was active, the program never produced a single promising lead, let alone stopped an attack. And Fox News was wall-to-wall “more guns, more surveillance, more race profiling”.
As Hamilton Nolan argued at Gawker, this sacrifice of democratic values is exactly the overwrought and fearful reaction that terrorist covet. You can’t claim to stand up against terrorism if you whittle away some of the very human rights rights that you say, at the same time, separates us from them.
We often think of mass surveillance as a privacy issue, but it’s often just as corroding to our rights to freedom of speech and association. Indeed, just before the Charlie Hebdo attack, the PEN American Center released a study showing that writers around the world felt NSA snooping and other surveillance mechanisms had chilled their work and made them self-censor. The New York Times reportedthe study showed that writers “have avoided, or have considered avoiding, controversial topics in their work or in personal communications as a result”.
In fact, one of the major legal cases against the NSA going through the US court system right now focuses almost entirely on First Amendment harms to speech from surveillance, rather than just privacy. It’s based on long-held US supreme court precedent from the civil rights era, where the court held that the NAACP had a First Amendment right to keep their membership list private. The court said:
Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a terrible tragedy and a strike at the heart of free expression. But let’s not attempt to avenge the deaths of journalists by trying to curtail the very rights for which the world has praised them.
Trevor Timm is a Guardian US columnist and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm