Fourth of July Weekend

On this Fourth of July Weekend, as we celebrate our country’s independence with our friends and families, I thought it would be good to take a quick moment to think a little bit more about our freedoms.

First, I want to start off with a quote from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

As I read this, I think about what is going on in Iran. I think of those who have lost their lives or liberty in an effort to keep their government from becoming more destructive. Here in the United States, the struggles to keep our government from becoming destructive is much more acceptable, and often lauded. Yet even here, it is an ongoing struggle.

The struggle here is usually not as dangerous. Instead, it takes much more thinking and analysis. We are currently in a national dialog about who the next member of the Supreme Court should be. Many of my friends are strong supporters of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Yet I have had serious doubts about her stance on basic freedoms, starting from my interest in the Doninger case.

Andy Thibault pointed me to a blog post by Kristin Billera at the Media and Communications Law Society saying Sotomayor’s Record on Freedom of Speech Issues is Mixed.

The crux of the Doninger case is whether or not what a student says at home on a computer can be considered ‘on campus’ speech. The essential argument of the court is that with a click of a mouse all off campus speech becomes on campus speech.

This isn’t the only case where speech that takes place online is being considered. Toni Bowers, who writes for TechRepublic, has a blog post up about a woman suing to have the name of an anonymous poster revealed. The plaintiff accuses the anonymous poster of defamation.

The post cites examples of other cases where the identity of anonymous posters have been demanded and of newspapers changing their policies about anonymous posts. This raises many issues about privacy, shield laws, and so on and it will be interesting to see how these cases play out.

My general thoughts about anonymous sources and privacy go back to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

It seems to me that newspapers that allow for anonymous comments, or, as in the case listed above, quote those comments in an article, rarely question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. On the other hand, not respecting any promises of anonymity implied in allowing anonymous comments on newspaper websites would also fail to meet this ethical standard.

In Iran, opponents of the government have a strong need for anonymity. They face arrest, torture or death if their comments are traced back to them. This isn’t a fear that most people posting anonymously on blogs in the United States should have.

We do live in a great country. Our freedoms are a key part of what makes our country great. I am glad to celebrate these freedoms with friends and family over this Fourth of July weekend. At the same time, we need to remain constantly vigilant to protect these freedoms in an ever-changing world.

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