Freedom of Speech vs. Embarrassing The Government

A federal employee decides to write a book on his knowledge of a known government scandal. After signing a book contract with a major publisher, the book deal is subsequently forbidden—by the government.

Does this sound like a George Orwell novel? Or an Ayn Rand work of fiction? No. It’s really happening. Not in a third world or Communist country. In the United States of America. Right now.

Consider the following:

The ATF agent who blew the whistle on [the Obama Justice Department’s] Operation Fast and Furious has been denied permission to write a book on the botched anti-gun trafficking sting “because it would have a negative impact on morale,” according to the very agency responsible for the scandal.  After first trying to stop the operation internally, ATF Agent John Dodson went to Congress and eventually the media following the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. Two guns found at the murder scene were sold through the ATF operation.  Dodson’s book, titled “The Unarmed Truth,” provides the first inside account of how the federal government permitted and helped sell some 2,000 guns to Mexican drug cartels, despite evidence the guns killed innocent people.  Dodson, who is working with publisher Simon & Schuster, submitted his manuscript to the department for review, per federal rules. However, it was denied. [The source of this story is However, the same facts are reported by the Obama-leaning]

The extraordinary factor? The reason the government gives for forbidding publication of the book: “Harming morale.” In other words, the government is essentially saying, “You may not publish this book—because it will embarrass us.” This is a new thing in America. Even under the last President, George W. Bush, no federal agency would have been permitted to say such a thing, much less do it. The outrage from anti-Bushite Michael Moore to to the Democratic National Committee would have been explosive. And deservedly so. For reasons nobody seems willing to explain or name, that’s no longer the case.

It appears that when the Obama administration faces embarrassment for the publication of a book exposing a government scandal, it has every right to assert government privilege. The idea that any government agency has a “right” not to be embarrassed is a principle underlying a dictatorship, not a democratic republic supportive of individual rights.

In a democratic republic, the individual has a right to speak his mind, or tell his story, provided it’s on his own time, money and property. If he commits plagiarism or spreads objective falsehoods, he’s of course subject to legal sanctions through the due process of courts and law. But that’s not what’s happening in this case. An agency of the federal government deems it humiliating, and therefore impermissible, for a potential whistle-blower to expose facts or perceptions about a very important scandal involving the government.

The Obama administration will argue that they have a right to control a man who’s still their employee. Yet the federal government forbids private sector employers discretion all the time. Hiring based on actual (or even alleged) racial or sexual discrimination is illegal, and employers are now mandated to provide health insurance for their employees, otherwise pay a fine. Why is so little discretion allowed private sector employers while the “king” in charge of the federal government may use any oversight he wishes? Plus, if the Obama administration has nothing to hide in the Fast and Furious scandal, why fear the publication of this book?

You need not care about the ATF Fast and Furious scandal, nor even know what it is. But freedom of speech is a wider principle—and it’s for everybody. It’s for Democrats, for Republicans, as well as for the nonpartisan or the politically indifferent. Freedom of speech is for writers of any kind, and for all of their readers. Even if you don’t care to read, you’ll fare much better in a society where people are free to think and, as a direct result, free to write and speak their minds as they see fit.

Our government is curbing that right in cases where it—well, where it’s embarrassing to the rulers. If you don’t care about that, then it’s hard to imagine that you care about any of your remaining freedoms.

  • mkkevitt

    The government has been curbing freedom of speech, which is wrong in any case. But, in the case of John Dodson, I see no violation of free speech. If he publishes his book, his employer can fire him, but he can’t be thrown in jail or fined on conviction of criminal charge. The government’s telling employers how to hire, how or whether or not to insure employees’ health, etc. though wrong, is beside the point, here. Dodson has to take his just chances. Maybe he should be ready to choose whether to keep his present career, or to drop it for a writing career. If he can pursue both, he can be happy about that, and glad. Mike Kevitt

  • Kevin

    If it were a private employer, I would agree with you, but the government is not a private employer and should not be treated as one. The government is given unique powers that private individuals do not have and it should have unique and significant restrictions as a result.

    To put it another way, the person who made this decision at the ATF does not own the ATF. Even the president does not own the government. You own it. And, as owner, it is perfectly moral for you to vote for greater transparency and to be outraged that you are being prevented from hearing the first hand account of one of your employees because it would make their managers look bad.

  • mkkevitt

    I didn’t approve or disapprove of how Dodson’s employer handled him. But, I do disapprove of it.

    I like your approach, not from the unique powers standpoint, but from that of ownership. The owners of the government, the people, have recourse thru elections, and thru other action between elections: lobbying or otherwise pressuring legislators and executive agencies such as the ATF, court action, peaceful protests, and others. Elected and appointed officials, and all employees, are subject to control and discipline. It’s definitely in order with Fast and Furious. But, Dodson’s case isn’t a matter of free speech. Anybody outside the employ of the ATF could get the information and publish it. Dodson could have passed it to someone without the ATF having any idea he did so. I think he should have known the ATF would disapprove of his book.

    As for unique powers, they’re as beside the point, here, as the government dictating hiring and insurance practices to private employers. The unique power (singular), for which the owners hire it, is to use responsive physical force against initiatory force, by law. The physical force is specified and controlled by the word, responsive, and the government is checked by the people through the Constitution and the same laws the government operates by. Bad elements that show up in government are handled the same way as bad managers in corporations, by the owners, but, not by anybody telling those bad elements about anybody’s inalienable individual rights. Whether it’s government or a private entity, they handle in house issues in house.

    It is for the people to discipline the ATF for its corruption in Fast and Furious, and for the way it treated Dodson, SIMPLY BECAUSE HE BROUGHT OUT IMPORTANT FACTS, not because or his freedom of speech, which aren’t violated unless he’s fined and/or jailed for talking. Mike Kevitt

  • Kevin

    Sorry — I posted this a while ago, but they seem to have deleted it, perhaps because it included a link.

    But, Dodson’s case isn’t a matter of free speech. Anybody outside the employ of the ATF could get the information and publish it. Dodson could have passed it to someone without the ATF having any idea he did so.

    Are you suggesting that it is not a matter of free speech because Dodson could hide his identity and his participation in that speech?

    It is for the people to discipline the ATF for its corruption in Fast and Furious, and for the way it treated Dodson, SIMPLY BECAUSE HE BROUGHT OUT IMPORTANT FACTS, not because or his freedom of speech, which aren’t violated unless he’s fined and/or jailed for talking.

    Freedom of speech restricts the government from doing more than just fining or jailing in response to speech.

    The basic problem is that the same entity is acting as both government and employer (and educator, etc.) and it is difficult to separate those roles, which is why, for example, the ACLU has objected based on 1A and why the courts have a persistent interest in these cases.

    My guess is that the ATF will cave, in order to prevent a challenge of its policy in court.

  • mkkevitt

    I’m saying it’s not a matter of free speech because Dodson wasn’t charged with a crime for speaking, He wasn’t fined or jailed. Hiding his identity and participation in the speech is beside the point; it would’ve only keep his employer from knowing he was involved. But, his employer could only fire him, at most, if it knew. Free speech doesn’t keep a gvt. employer from firing an employee when he exercises free speech. The fact that this same entity HAS to be both gvt. and employer, regardless of the function performed, is beside the point.

    There’s nothing unique about gvt. power. It’s a specie of power held by all private individuals and entities. Because of the nature of the specie, gvt. has a monopoly on it. The specie of power is: responsive force, by law, against initiatory force. As corollary, gvt. can have ONLY that power. As nobody else can have that power, only gvt. can. Likewise, gvt. can’t have any of the power privately held.

    The fact that gvt. perverts its power by holding private power hostage is, again beside the point of free speech. The rule applies: the employer can’t fine or jail, but it can fire, when an employee speaks. In gvt. perversion of its power, it’s the same as working for a criminal gang anyway: you’re a sitting duck. But if the criminal is a perverted gvt., you have recourse to Const. & law if they try fining or jailing you. And the owners, the people, have their recourse, as I mentioned previously, as corporate owners have their recourse. Mike Kevitt