The freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are, as much as any feature of American life, what set us apart from other countries. But frequently a case comes along, like the CNN Noriega tapes affair, that threatens to impose controls on free expression such as you find in less-blessed societies.
Consider this tale of three countries:BURMA: The Burmese once dubbed their golden, Texas-sized Southeast Asian Country "the happy land." But few people have less to be happy about. Burma, recently named Myamar, has been a police state under a military dictatorship since 1962.
Last May, following protracted and bloody rioting, the government permitted elections. The opposition National League for Democracy won in a landslide, but the military has refused to step down.
Last week a military tribunal in Rangoon, which already has jailed about 50 opposition leaders, sentenced two more to 10 years in prison. They were apparently prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, which makes it a crime for anyone in government to tell almost anything about the government and forbids anyone from receiving such information unless authorized.
Western press reports said that it appeared - there was no way of finding out for sure - the pair was accused of passing out a "secret document" to other party members.
The Official Secrets Act is part of a patchwork of laws that curb discussion and dissent. Many were ostensibly aimed at "irresponsible" reports in the nation's fight against ethnic insurgent groups. Some laws were "emergency" acts which, though "temporary," have remained on the books for decades. Others, like the Official Secrets Act, are hand-me-downs from the India Acts under which Burma was governed by the British till 1947.
BRITAIN: Although many of our fundamental rights of free speech came from Britain, the country retains many curbs on free expression that we have found intolerable here.
One is Britain's own Official Secrets Act. Government information available in Britain is what the elites decide should be made public.
Now the British parliament is clamoring for more control of the press, including three new criminal offenses recommended to protect privacy and restrict the reporting of courts, pointing to what some see as press irresponsibility. Britain already has more restrictive libel and contempt of court statutes than ours.
Furthermore, the government can and does get gag orders from the courts when sensitive matter, or information someone in the government thinks is sensitive, is about to be aired or printed.
One by no means isolated instance: In 1987 the government got an injunction against the distribution of "Spycatcher," a book by a former deputy director of British internal counterespionage that was embarrassing to the agency. While we in the United States and most of the rest of the world could read the book the British could not.
The House of Lords lifted the injunction, but only because the book already had been distributed in other countries. The ruling didn't much disturb the question of whether or under what conditions the government in a free, democratic society should have the power to prohibit the flow of information and ideas.
UNITED STATES: What do events in Britain and Burma, two countries so different from one another and ours, have to do with us?
A Senate bill beaten back late in the Nixon years would have given us some of the most repellent features of the official secrets acts. Just about every expert agrees that revelations of the Watergate scandals would have been impossible had such an item been in force then.
And from time to time government attempts to get injunctions through the courts against the press here. In almost every such case of modern times the U.S. Supreme Court has regarded such prior restraints as unconstitutional. In the early '30s it ruled against a Minnesota law that permitted an injunction that halted a Minneapolis paper, the Saturday Press, even though the paper was a vicious rag. In 1971 it struck down, though narrowly, a court ban on publication of "The Pentagon Papers," an embarrassing government review of the Vietnam War, which a government employee, Daniel Ellsberg, had given to the New York Times. And it ruled on the free press-fair trial confrontation in the trial of a Nebraska mass murderer in 1976 that the Constitution condemns gag orders in almost all instances.
Now the question of whether the government can go to the courts to block the flow of information is with us again. The trial judge in the Manuel Noriega case forbade CNN from airing tapes made by prison officials (not by CNN) of Noriega's conversations with his lawyers and acquired by CNN through a circuitous route. The Supreme Court then reaffirmed the prohibition by a 7-2 vote.
The case is complicated by whether Noriega's right to a free trial has been compromised and by the FBI's seizure without a search warrant of materials from a CNN reporter.
It has stirred up unusual debate. Some critics, including even some newspaper opinion, worry more about what they see as CNN's irresponsibility than the court's threat to free expression.
A look at the assault on press freedoms in other countries under the guise of demanding "responsibility" and at the long, hard fight against them in our own land should give us pause in taking the government's side.