War and Liberty
On Wednesday I was asked to join a panel discussion of this development on WTTW's Chicago Tonight program. I was flanked by an editor of a political blog and a national security expert. Despite a substantive dialogue, we all seemed to agree that this decision isn't all that controversial given the fact that we are at war.
The Pentagon relies extensively on the Internet (its own creation, mind you) for precision bombing, and excessive bandwidth usage could compromise its integrity, undermine military missions, and place our troops in harm's way. Moreover, it is well known that soldiers sacrifice some of their liberties as a condition of their service (the Ehren Watada case is exploring the limits of this balance). Finally, the Supreme Court last year, in a 5-4 decision, curtailed the workplace free speech rights of government employees, making a distinction between rights of a citizen vs. those of an employee.
This liberty-security balance also has implications on the home front. Four states have either enacted laws or are in the process of considering legislation restricting the use of images of fallen soldiers on t-shirts or other items for commercial use without the permission the appropriate family. Commercial speech rights, while more restricted than those pertaining to political speech, could be undermined if these laws are applied.
Another issue concerns aerial imagery available through Internet servers like Yahoo and Google that selectively obscures certain locations deemed vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The San Francisco Chronicle found disparities in censorship across sites, and no legal requirement for such limitations. In this age of terrorist threats, it strikes me as a bit alarming that imagery of nuclear power plants and the like is available for public surveillance worldwide.
Regardless of where one stands on the ideological spectrum, we are without doubt in the process of finding our bearings in a new era. The liberty-security continuum is enduring expected shifts, and as citizens it is important to track these developments and to voice our opinions about an appropriate balance. MySpace, t-shirts, and Google Earth are but a few battlefields in this uncharted war.