Every year Reporters Without Borders issues their Press Freedom Index, detailing the degree to which a country’s press is free. This year the US slipped to #47, and the US territories are #57 thanks to how the press was treated during the Occupy protests.
No matter whether one loves or can’t stand the Occupy movement, journalists should be allowed to cover the protests without fear of being arrested. Further, unless protesters are rioting the protesters themselves shouldn’t be arrested, which happened to Gavin Aronsen of Mother Jones this weekend.
Over the past few years it’s become fashionable for certain political groups to shout about some hidden meaning of the Constitution, demanding some form of Constitutional purity that conveniently suits their political agenda. They’re not as enthusiastic about those sections that do not further their agenda, or even those that do but are being used by groups that they disagree with.
Repeating a pattern I see when I hear pundits talk about housing, mortgages, and foreclosures sometimes I wonder if they’ve actually read the text. Even though I should have to I’ll briefly repeat that the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, was adopted along with the rest of the text. It’s relatively short and to the point:
“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.”
While the US Constitution had some serious flaws — especially the well-known definition of slaves as three-fifths of a person and the exclusion of women from the democratic process — it remains the the bedrock sample of Democracy; countless countries have virtually copied it.
Something is wrong when Standard & Poor’s cites “freedom of speech” as the right to actively mislead MBS investors when rating MBS pools — the ratings section of prospectuses aren’t exactly high prose — but those same rights are ignored by thuggish police.
I spent the weekend parsing — that is, taking apart — MBS prospectuses so I can put them together in a more manageable form. While writing computer programs to slice-and-dice the material it occurred to me that at least we have the material in the first place, and retain the right to write about them.
Somebody, somewhere, way back when, had the good sense to require investors to disclose this information, and the framers of the Constitution the foresight to guarantee an absolute write to ink our thoughts and findings.
Granted, there was the ill-fated attempt to allow corporate censorship of the Internet, though once the wheels of Democracy started to spin saw saw an abrupt about-face; that is, the Democratic mechanism to protect ourselves worked. Similarly, Gavin Aronsen was released from jail after a call from his editor.
In a perfect world legislation to censor the Internet should never have been introduced. Gavin (and, arguably, most if not all the protesters) should never arrested. But at least they’re free, not rotting endlessly like they would in some countries.
As I sit and electronically sort through a mountain of paperwork that go to the heart of what broke the world economy, with an expectation that I’ll write about my findings, I don’t worry much about the police breaking down my door and arresting me. Conversely, the thought shouldn’t even cross my mind.
Change, for better or worse, tends to happen slowly so that what once was unthinkable becomes the new normal, and we have to carefully monitor and protect our rights in the same manner that we monitor and protect our economic freedom and foundation. Free markets, including the right to fail, and Free Press, are more intertwined than most people realize, and both show disturbing trends lately.
But maybe I’m an eternal optimist: I believe that over the long run American’s are good people and the US tends to do the right thing. Our country is relatively young age and, like most young people, we excel at quickly getting ourselves into trouble. But we also tend to work our way out of it, to do the right thing given enough time.
As I return to my compilers, database, and spreadsheets I’m not especially worried about being able to eventually publish the results, even if those results are upsetting. Judging by what S&P has gotten away with I can even publish them if they’re entirely wrong and I know it, though I hold myself to a higher standard than that.
But just because those freedoms exist right now doesn’t mean that we don’t need to maintain vigilance to ensure that those rights are preserved and strengthened. Freedom of Speech, and Economic Freedom are two bedrocks of the US, the former written explicitly and the latter referred to endlessly. Let’s make sure that we pass both to our children and their children with the same care that they were passed to us.