Here’s the First Amendment, in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Those beautiful words, almost haiku-like, are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment. The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism. Go ahead, reread it aloud at this moment when the government seems to be carving out an exception to it large enough to drive a tank through.
As the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, like those pepper-sprayed at UC Davis or the Marine veteran shot in Oakland, recently found out, the government’s ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, to undercut the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of US citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on. In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in.
Now, it also seems to be chipping away at the most basic American right of all, the right of free speech, starting with that of its own employees. As is often said, the easiest book to stop is the one that is never written; the easiest voice to staunch is the one that is never raised.
It’s true that, over the years, government in its many forms has tried to claim that you lose your free speech rights when you, for example, work for a public school, or join the military. In dealing with school administrators who sought to silence a teacher for complaining publicly that not enough money was being spent on academics versus athletics, or generals who wanted to stop enlisted men and women from blogging, the courts have found that any loss of rights must be limited and specific. As Jim Webb wrote when still Secretary of the Navy, “A citizen does not give up his First Amendment right to free speech when he puts on a military uniform, with small exceptions.”
Free speech is considered so basic that the courts have been wary of imposing any limits at all. The famous warning by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about not falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater shows just how extreme a situation must be for the Supreme Court to limit speech. As Holmes put it in his definition: “The question in every case is whether the words used… are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” That’s a high bar indeed.
The Government v. Morris Davis
Does a newspaper article from November 2009, a few hundred well-reasoned words that appeared in the conservative Wall Street Journal, concluding with these mild sentences, meet Justice Holmes’s high mark?
“Double standards don’t play well in Peoria. They won’t play well in Peshawar or Palembang either. We need to work to change the negative perceptions that exist about Guantanamo and our commitment to the law. Formally establishing a legal double standard will only reinforce them.”
Morris Davis got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing that article and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson’s library evidently escaped his bosses.) With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back. On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf. In March 2011 a federal court ruled that the suit could go forward.
The case is being heard this month. Someday, it will likely define the free speech rights of federal employees and so determine the quality of people who will make up our government. We citizens vote for the big names, but it’s the millions of lower-ranked, unelected federal employees who decide by their actions how the laws are carried out (or ignored) and the Constitution upheld (or disregarded).
Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant. Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than 25 years as an Air Force colonel. He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis had stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture back in 2005. When a torture advocate was named his boss in 2007, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.
In December 2008, Davis went to work as a researcher at the Library of Congress in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division. None of his work was related to Guantanamo. He was not a spokesperson for, or a public face of, the library. He was respected at work. Even the people who fired him do not contest that he did his “day job” as a researcher well.
On November 12, 2009, the day after his op-ed and letter appeared, Davis was told by his boss that the pieces had caused the library concern over his “poor judgment and suitability to serve… not consistent with ‘acceptable service'”—as the letter of admonishment he received put the matter. It referred only to his op-ed and Washington Post letter, and said nothing about his work performance as a researcher. One week later, Davis was fired.
But Shouldn’t He Have Known Better Than to Write Something Political?
The courts have consistently supported the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to use extreme and hateful words, of the burners of books, and of those who desecrate the American flag. All of that is considered “protected speech.” A commitment to real free speech means accepting the toughest cases, the most offensive things people can conceive of, as the price of a free society.
The Library of Congress does not restrict its employees from writing or speaking, so Davis broke no rules. Nor, theoretically at least, do other government agencies like the CIA and the State Department restrict employees from writing or speaking, even on matters of official concern, although they do demand prior review for such things as the possible misuse of classified material.
Clearly, such agency review processes have sometimes been used as a de facto method of prior restraint. The CIA, for example, has been accused of using indefinite security reviews to effectively prevent a book from being published. The Department of Defense has also wielded exaggerated claims of classified material to block books.
Since at least 1968, there has, however, been no broad prohibition against government employees writing about political matters or matters of public concern. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a seminal public employee First Amendment case, Pickering v. Board of Education. It ruled that school officials had violated the First Amendment rights of teacher Marvin Pickering when they fired him for writing a letter to his local paper criticizing the allocation of money between academics and athletics.
A Thought Crime
Morris Davis was fired by the Library of Congress not because of his work performance, but because he wrote that Wall Street Journal op-ed on his own time, using his own computer, as a private citizen, never mentioning his (unrelated) federal job. The government just did not like what he wrote. Perhaps his bosses were embarrassed by his words, or felt offended by them. Certainly, in the present atmosphere in Washington, they felt they had an open path to stopping their own employee from saying what he did, or at least for punishing him for doing so.
It’s not, of course, that federal employees don’t write and speak publicly. As long as they don’t step on toes, they do, in startling numbers, on matters of official concern, on hobbies, on subjects of all sorts, through what must be an untold number of blogs, Facebook pages, Tweets, op-eds, and letters to the editor. The government picked Davis out for selective, vindictive prosecution.
More significantly, Davis was fired prospectively—not for poor attendance, or too much time idling at the water cooler, but because his boss believed Davis’s writing showed that the quality of his judgment might make him an unsuitable employee at some future moment. The simple act of speaking out on a subject at odds with an official government position was the real grounds for his firing. That, and that alone, was enough for termination.
As any devoted fan of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, or Philip K. Dick would know, Davis committed a thought crime.
As some readers may also know, I evidently did the same thing. Because of my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, about my experiences as a State Department official in Iraq, and the articles, op-eds, and blog posts I have written, I first had my security clearance suspended by the Department of State and then was suspended from my job there. That job had nothing to do with Iraq or any of the subjects I have written about. My performance reviews were good, and no one at State criticized me for my day-job work. Because we have been working under different human resources systems, Davis, as a civil servant on new-hire probation, could be fired directly. As a tenured Foreign Service Officer, I can’t, and so State has placed me on indefinite administrative leave status; that is, I’m without a job, pending action to terminate me formally through a more laborious process.
However, in removing me from my position, the document the State Department delivered to me darkly echoed what Davis’ boss at the Library of Congress said to him:
“The manner in which you have expressed yourself in some of your published material is inconsistent with the standards of behavior expected of the Foreign Service. Some of your actions also raise questions about your overall judgment. Both good judgment and the ability to represent the Foreign Service in a way that will make the Foreign Service attractive to candidates are key requirements.”
There follows a pattern of punishing federal employees for speaking out or whistle-blowing: look at Davis, or me, or Franz Gayl, or Thomas Drake. In this way, a precedent is being set for an even deeper cloud of secrecy to surround the workings of government. From Washington, in other words, no news, other than good or officially approved news, is to emerge.
The government’s statements at Davis’s trial, now underway in Washington D.C., do indeed indicate that he was fired for the act of speaking out itself, as much as the content of what he said. The Justice Department lawyer representing the government said that Davis’s writings cast doubt on his discretion, judgment and ability to serve as a high-level official. (She also added that Davis’s language in the op-ed was “intemperate.” One judge on the three-member bench seemed to support the point, saying, “It’s one thing to speak at a law school or association, but it’s quite a different thing to be in The Washington Post.” The case will likely end up at the Supreme Court.
Free Speech is for Iranians, not Government Employees
If Morris Davis loses his case, then a federal employee’s judgment and suitability may be termed insufficient for employment if he or she writes publicly in a way that offends or embarrasses the government. In other words, the very definition of good judgment, when it comes to freedom of speech, will then rest with the individual employer—that is, the US government.
Simply put, even if you as a federal employee follow your agency’s rules on publication, you can still be fired for what you write if your bosses don’t like it. If your speech offends them, then that’s bad judgment on your part and the First Amendment goes down the drain. Free speech is increasingly coming at a price in Washington: for federal employees, conscience could cost them their jobs.
In this sense, Morris Davis represents a chilling precedent. He raised his voice. If we’re not careful, the next Morris Davis may not. Federal employees are, at best, a skittish bunch, not known for their innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. Actions like those in the Davis case will only further deter any thoughts of speaking out, and will likely deter some good people from seeking federal employment.
More broadly, the Davis case threatens to give the government free rein in selecting speech by its employees it does not like and punishing it. It’s okay to blog about your fascination with knitting or to support official positions. If you happen to be Iranian or Chinese or Syrian, and not terribly fond of your government, and express yourself on the subject, the US government will support your right to do it 110% of the way. However, as a federal employee, blog about your negative opinions on US policies and you’ve got a problem. In fact, we have a problem as a country if freedom of speech only holds as long as it does not offend the US government.
Morris Davis’s problem is neither unique nor isolated. Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Reporters without Borders, told me earlier this month, “Secrecy is taking over from free speech in the United States. While we naively thought the Obama administration would be more transparent than the previous one, it is actually the first to sue five people for being sources and speaking publicly.” Scary, especially since this is no longer an issue of one rogue administration.
Government is different than private business. If you don’t like McDonald’s because of its policies, go to Burger King, or a soup kitchen, or eat at home. You don’t get the choice of federal governments, and so the critical need for its employees to be able to speak informs the republic. We are the only ones who can tell you what is happening inside your government. It really is that important. Ask Morris Davis.
Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), has recently been published. To read about the grilling he’s gotten from the State Department for his truth-telling, click here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
[Note on further readings: You can check out the ACLU’s full-filing text on behalf of Davis by clicking here.]
[Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the US Government. It should be quite obvious that the Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.]