New York Times columnist challenges media in Silha lecture

Andrew Pritchard

Less than seven years after the First Amendment’s enactment, the Sedition Act made criticizing the president a criminal offense.

The act was one of the “episodes of repression and repentance” in the struggle between national security and free speech, two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist Anthony Lewis said at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs on Tuesday.

The press has a “Madisonian duty” to criticize the government during such national crises, Lewis said.

Lewis, a New York Times columnist for more than 30 years and former head of the Times’ London bureau, teaches “The Constitution and the press” at Harvard Law School and delivered the annual Silha Lecture to an audience that filled Cowles Auditorium and the dozens of chairs arranged before a video monitor in the lobby.

Lewis said the United States has previously repressed free speech during the two world wars and during the Communist scare of the 1950s, but he said violations of freedom since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are different because of the “endlessness” of the war on terrorism.

“In the view of President (George W.) Bush and his lawyers, anyone in this audience could be picked up and held in a military prison, without charges, without a lawyer and without a trial,” Lewis said of the detention of two U.S. citizens during the summer after Bush declared them “enemy combatants.”

“We used to think of conviction by announcement as a hallmark of totalitarian countries,” Lewis said.

Lewis also criticized the Bush administration’s November order allowing military tribunals for noncitizen terrorism suspects, as well as the administration’s detention of hundreds of “unlawful combatants” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and its policy of allowing secret deportation hearings for immigrants.

“A man captured in Afghanistan is not likely to attract our natural sympathy, but sympathy is not the point,” Lewis said. “The point is the breadth, the astonishing breadth, of the Bush administration’s claim to power.”

He added, “It’s a mistake to think that repression of someone different from you will stop there.”

Lewis said the press has the important duty of monitoring the government, but he gave “a bare passing grade” to media coverage of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.

“I think the press can do a much better job than it’s done,” he said. “The press has been less than diligent in reporting some people’s criticism.”

Lewis quoted Thomas Jefferson’s famous remark that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers.

“Our liberty depends on freedom of the press,” he quoted from Jefferson, “and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Lewis commented on the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling allowing newspapers to publish the so-called “Pentagon papers,” and he said that was an example of the press serving the public by exposing government actions.

“We need that kind of courage from the press more than ever today,” he said.


Andrew Pritchard covers state politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]