This last week from the invaluable Editor & Publisher, a trade publication that runs all sorts of good stuff on freedom of speech and freedom of the press issues:
NEW YORK Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has asked Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson for a thorough inquiry of his agency’s investigation into whether a V.A. nurse’s letter to the editor criticizing the Bush administration amounted to “sedition.”
Merely opposing government policies and expressing a desire to change course “does not provide reason to believe that a person is involved in illegal subversive activity,” he said. Bingaman said such investigations raise “a very real possibility of chilling legitimate political speech.”
Laura Berg, a clinical nurse specialist for 15 years, wrote a letter in September to a weekly Albuquerque newspaper criticizing how the administration handled Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq Wwr. She urged people to “act forcefully” by bring criminal charges against top administration officials, including the president, to remove them from power because they played games of “vicious deceit.” She added: “This country needs to get out of Iraq now and return to our original vision and priorities of caring for land and people and resources rather than killing for oil….Otherwise, many more of us will be facing living hell in these times.”
The agency seized her computer and launched an investigation. Berg is not talking to the press, but reportedly fears losing her job.
Bingaman wrote: “In a democracy, expressing disagreement with the government’s actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection. It is, and must remain, protected speech. Although it may be permissible to implement restrictions regarding a government employee’s political activities during work hours or on government premises, such employees do not surrender their right to freedom of speech when they enlist in government service.”
He said he wants the matter investigated so V.A. officials will have guidance about handling similar situations in the future.
Berg signed the letter as a private citizen, and the V.A. had no reason to suspect she used government resources to write it, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which last week asked the government to apologize to Berg for seizing her computer and investigating her.
V.A. human resources chief Mel Hooker had said in a Nov. 9 letter that his agency was obligated to investigate “any act which potentially represents sedition,” the ACLU said.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, told The Progressive magazine: “We were shocked to see the word ‘sedition’ used. Sedition? That’s like something out of the history books.”
In a press release, Simonson also said: “Is this government so jealous of its power, so fearful of dissent, that it needs to threaten people who openly oppose its policies with charges of ‘sedition’?”