The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 82.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

CNN foils prior restraint

Minor political intrigue may not always be big news, but it should at least be allowed to be. The pledge that the United States government would be accountable to, controlled by, and operated for the American people was and is a double-sided promise, and the Constitution a contract. The legal government has a responsibility to guarantee liberties and share information about its operation with the public upon demand, and the people are required to accept the legitimacy of the system and the leaders it has produced. Blind faith in our representatives and their appointees, however, never worked into the equation, and the the maintenance of our rights was never meant to be convenient or easy. But the system, for reasons we still don't completely understand, works.

Once in a while this arrangement gets renegotiated.

Weeks ago CNN, the cable news behemoth, obtained audio tapes of incarcerated Gen. Manuel Noriega's phone conversations with his legal team, which had been legally monitored by prison security officials. Noriega's lawyer, arguing that the release to the public of the these conversations would jeopardize Noriega's rights to a fair trial, insisted that the charges against the former Panamanian ruler be dropped. Federal district Judge William Hoeveler, fearing a mistrial, ordered CNN to return the Noriega tapes. Naturally, CNN aired them instead. Days ago, Hoeveler reversed the temporary restrictions.

In those few weeks, this country came close to releasing another mutant strain of the world's most dangerous plague. . . .

Prior restraint.

According to most contemporary interpretations of the Bill of Rights, the judiciary cannot bar the media from running any story (i.e., execute a prior restraint on the newspaper or news program in question). In 1971, the government lost a case to prevent The New York Times and The Washington Post from printing Vietnam-era Pentagon plans, and prior restraint has been a nearly dead issue ever since.

Prior restraint is a legal concept that seems innocent but can lead to a host of complications and abuses. The doctrine, many claim, only sacrifices free speech to protect other rights or protect the general welfare. Hoeveler acted claiming to protect Noriega's right to a fair trial, and the attorney general during the Pentagon Papers case sought officially to guard confidential strategic information.

Such a doctrine, however, compromises the most fundamental of our liberties on the hunch of one unelected, possibly unscrupulous individual. The Pentagon Papers were more of an embarrassment to the government than a confidential national security document, and the Noriega tapes are only worrisome to the government because their release makes the government prosecutors' jobs tougher. The potential for abuse of the prior restraint doctrine is, it seems, so enormous that it cannot be used in any circumstance.

Prior restraint's justification implies that certain information is too sensitive for the people to know. Instead of demonstrating accountability, government can hide behind a shroud of "national security" or "general welfare," and the people can only bow their heads and accept the colossal wisdom of their representatives.

In the real world, where judicial decisions often rest on previous rulings, one win for prior restraint can snowball until free speech is curtailed at the government's every whim -- until recently, ownership of a typewriter in the Soviet Union, the champion state of prior restraint, required government licensing.

There is very little occurring behind the scenes in Washington or elsewhere that the public doesn't deserve to know. The right to freely publish and distribute should not be infringed upon, even if the release of some information may be mildly inconvenient or embarrassing. The media will not publish malicious or dangerous material, or risk offending the public which keeps it alive. Since this country's founding, irresponsibility of the free press has yet to cause the apocalypse that many think it will. The costs of restricting free speech are much higher. Control of the press is a power that no human is fit to wield.

Responsibility for the release of information, then, rests with the media. On numerous occasions, the media has frozen stories at the request of the government (The Times sat on the story of the Bay of Pigs invasion days before it occurred). If real harm does come from media negligence, the government can sue all it wants -- but that is the limit.


Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is an associate opinion editor of The Tech.


Judge William Hoeveler ordered CNN to return the Noriega tapes. Naturally, CNN aired them instead.


Control of the press is a power that no human is fit to wield.