Nat Hentoff: Civics classes back to basics: Obama impeachment
In 1798, only seven years after the First Amendment was ratified as part of the Constitution, President John Adams undermined the First Amendment by pushing the Alien and Sedition Acts through Congress. This law subjected citizens to imprisonment for speech that brought the president or Congress into "contempt or disrepute" (my book, "The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America," Delacorte Press, 1988).
That led enough angry Americans to deny Adams a second term, bringing Thomas Jefferson, a leading opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts, to the presidency. In 1786, Jefferson wrote a friend about one of the anchors of our freedom of speech: "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
But President Barack Obama, since taking office, has continually limited the First Amendment, the most singular and powerful right that distinctly identifies Americans from residents in all other countries on Earth.
Political speech is our quintessential weapon against imperious presidents towering over the Constitution’s separation of powers.
In the past few weeks, more Americans have been awakened to the diminishment of theirs and the press’s rights of free speech. Alerted to revelations of the multiple "scandals" of the Obama administration, The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan writes:
"In order to suppress conservative groups — at first, those with words like ‘Tea Party’ and ‘Patriot’ in their names, then including those that opposed ObamaCare or advanced the Second Amendment — the IRS demanded donor rolls, membership lists, data on all contributions, names of volunteers, the contents of all speeches made by members, Facebook posts, minutes of all meetings and copies of all materials handed out at gatherings."
In this land of the free and home of the brave, the IRS asked such questions as: "What are you thinking about? Did you ever think of running for office? Do you ever contact political figures? What are you reading?" ("This Is No Ordinary Scandal," Noonan, The Wall Street Journal, May 17).
Dig this: One respondent answered that last query simply: "The U.S. Constitution."
For an administration that regards the word "Patriot" with suspicion, that must have been disquieting.
As for the Obama Justice Department, headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, it demonstrated its utter disrespect for the First Amendment’s freedom of the press by how it has investigated leaks of classified information to reporters:
"The Justice Department subpoenaed a sweeping two months of AP (Associated Press) phone records from Verizon Wireless last year without notifying the news organization — essentially giving the AP no chance to fight back in the courts" ("Obama’s Leak Obsession Leads to Privacy and Free Speech Abuses," Roger Aronoff, aim.org, May 23).
Accuracy in Media’s Aronoff quotes Lynn Oberlander, general counsel for The New Yorker, who wrote on the magazine’s website: "Even beyond the outrageous and overreaching action against the journalists, this is a blatant attempt to avoid the oversight function of the courts" ("The Law Behind the AP Phone-Record Scandal," Oberlander,
, May 14).
And by invading the privacy of the AP’s reporters and editors, Aronoff writes: "Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt says that sources are now hesitant to talk to the AP because they’re concerned that they’ll be monitored by the government."
Aronoff quotes Pruitt, who says: "Sources, just in the normal course of news gathering, recently, say we don’t necessarily want to talk to you.
"We don’t want our phone records monitored by the U.S. government."
These Americans agree with Pruitt, as he tells Aronoff that the Justice Department’s actions are "unconstitutional."
Aronoff cites a Foreign Policy article from last year, in which Trevor Timm reported: "America’s finest journalism is often produced with the aid of classified information.
"The New York Times’ report on warrantless wiretapping and The Washington Post’s expose on CIA secret prisons, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize, are just two of countless examples" ("Obama’s Secret Hypocrisy," Timm, Foreign Policy, June 2012).
Meanwhile, the president has now slickly "ordered a review ... of the Justice Department’s procedures for legal investigations involving reporters."
He emphasized that "journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs ...
"Our focus must be on those who break the law" ("Obama, in Nod to Press, Orders Review of Inquiries," Mark Landler, The New York Times, May 24).
But, Mr. President, it was the Justice Department that broke the law.
Can you imagine Jefferson’s reaction to this news?
Obama actually had the gall to tell us that Attorney General Holder, a leading law-breaker in this operation, will direct this official fact-finding review! He directly approved removing Fox News’ First Amendment rights when "prosecutors obtained a search warrant for (Fox News reporter James) Rosen’s phone and email records."
Next week: I, and other reporters, respond to Obama’s current canny deflections of these charges concerning his extrajudicial commands.
If Jefferson were still here, he would have instantly condemned them.
Regardless of political parties, though, where is there a Jefferson among us today? Someone who would demand an independent commission with due process rights for the primary witness, President Obama, in a possible impeachment case against him? Mounting evidence, going back to the beginning of his first term, could be examined.
Should there be an actual fully televised impeachment procedure — which could happen if We the People demanded it — public school students watching might call for a return of civics classes to their schools, newly reminded that they are self-governing Americans.
Nat Hentoff is a renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.