The incident that led to my writing this weekly political column for LEO was the effort, six months ago, by Kentucky state government to deny credentials for covering the legislative session to anyone who wasn’t part of the traditional mainstream press, as defined by them. Never mind that the public continues to devour news and information online in ever-increasing amounts.
Nope — state government declared that if your product involves the written word, it must be printed with ink on thin sheets of cellulose fibers, usually made of wood pulp. All other forms are heresy.
So I started writing for LEO to complement my political Web site, BluegrassReport.org. All seemed OK. Until two weeks ago, that is, when the Fletcher administration decided to ban access to political blogs (although they are applying their policy inconsistently) from state-owned computers. Meanwhile, Web sites like The Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader are not blocked.
The national media quickly refocused on the latest turmoil in the Bluegrass, and Fletcher’s minions again scrambled to explain their actions, each seemingly contradicting the other and re-inventing the policy by the day. Ultimately, the justification for censorship came down to a rationalization, that state employees waste taxpayer money when they read these sites. Political blogs, by the way, have been lumped together with categories containing pornography and gambling.
There’s one problem: It’s the U. S. Constitution, the First Amendment in particular.
Now, before you argue that state workers have no constitutional right to read political blogs on the public’s dime, let me respond: You are correct. Somewhere along the way, mainstream media made this story about the rights of state employees. They chased the wrong ball. No one was arguing that point.
The issue here is simple and has nothing to do with state workers. It has to do with government trying to ban some political speech (blogs), while not blocking other forms (mainstream media sites). If government is required to uphold the constitutional guarantees of a free press, isn’t it a fundamental conflict if it gets to decide what constitutes the press in the first place?
Of course it is. The irony is how history is repeating itself.
Go back to the things you learned about American history as a kid. The first incarnation of the press around the time of the American Revolution involved pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine, who wrote “Common Sense.” These early American pamphleteers were one-man operations, using small printing presses to churn out political thought to the citizens. They were not professional writers, and their purpose was not literature. They were simply ordinary citizens passionately struggling with the issues of their time. So important was their work that one prominent historian wrote, “It was in this form — as pamphlets — that much of the most important and characteristic writing of the American Revolution appeared.”
So it’s not surprising that students of contemporary media commonly equate today’s political bloggers with the 18th century pamphleteers. Some believe the rise of blogs has led to the re-emergence of the writer-citizen in a form unseen since the founding of our republic.
Indeed, the argument is not whether state employees have the right to read political blogs (they don’t), it’s whether our government can ban them but not ban those from mainstream media (they can’t).
While the distillation and homogenization of the mainstream media during the last half of the previous century limited the offerings of news and information to the public, the first half of this century is providing the counterweight, getting more information to the public and allowing average citizens a voice in today’s political life. It’s all due largely to the Internet.
The Fletcher administration’s arbitrary decision to ban political blogs seems like a short-lived proposition. They’ll either recognize the constitutional problems of their action and voluntarily reverse it, or be ordered by the federal courts to do so involuntarily.
Thankfully, history has a way of making sure we don’t forget its lessons. At least not for long.
National political blogger and author David Sirota visits Kentucky next week during his 30-city tour. He’s out promoting his New York Times bestselling book, “Hostile Takeover,” which details how government today refuses to protect citizens from the greedy corporate oligarchy, and how those interests carefully control the rhetoric that comes out of the mouths of politicians. Sirota will be the keynote speaker at Not-So-Fancy-Farm 2006, along with State Treasurer Jonathan Miller (D), at the Kentucky Horse Park. It’s next Wednesday, July 12, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.changeforkentucky.com.
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