Mass governmental surveillance impacts First Amendment freedoms in profound ways, chilling speech and even thought.
We tend to think of such surveillance under the rubric of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the government from engaging in “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But, surveillance also negatively impacts freedom of speech, assembly, association – and even thought.
When Edward Snowden blew the whistle in 2013 on domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), many people understood we were faced with the reality that privacy and individual freedoms are at risk. If we believe we are being watched, our e-mails are being read, and our phone conversations are being monitored, then we will engage in self-censorship.
Pen America’s report Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor explains that many writers have curtailed their social media activity and limited their writing subjects because of a fear of surveillance.
Pending lawsuits may help determine whether concerns over this this landscape of surveillance may be lessened through more accountability and transparency. Twenty-two organizations, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sued the NSA in July 2013 in First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, alleging that the NSA’s practice of monitoring telephone calls infringes upon their free-association rights.
Twitter sued the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI in October 2014, contending in Twitter v. Holder that it should have the ability to publish its “Transparency Report” and explain how often the government issues it National Security Letters.
More needs to be done to ensure that the government’s surveillance practices do not swallow whole individual liberties. The ACLU contends in its Path to Privacy Reform that Congress, the courts, and technology companies must act to combat not only surveillance but also governmental secrecy. Whistleblowers shouldn’t be branded automatically as traitors and demonized.
As Glenn Greenwald writes in his incisive book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (2014): “The danger posed by the state operating a massive secret surveillance system is far more ominous now than at any point in history.”
A loss of First Amendment freedoms is indeed ominous.
David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.