For nearly 30 years, the late Alan Barth, a writer on The Washington Post editorial page staff, set new and influential journalistic standards for covering the civil liberties beat. (He retired in 1972.) I often refer to his 1984 book, "The Rights of Free Men: An Essential Guide to Civil Liberties," a collection of his editorials and articles and selections from books and lectures.
At one point, he quoted Sen. William Borah: "The safeguards of our liberty are not so much in danger from those who openly oppose them as from those who, professing to believe in them, are willing to ignore them for their purposes. . . . The latter undermine the very first principles of our government and are far the more dangerous."
As of March of this year, when the Town Commission of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla., passed a Decorum Ordinance requiring that any person who, in the course of a town meeting, makes "personal, impertinent or slanderous remarks" or "becomes boisterous while addressing the Town Commission . . . shall be removed from the meeting and shall be barred from further attendance at such meetings."
This is in the un-American tradition of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, passed by President John Adams and the Federalist-dominated Congress. Accordingly, journalists and lay citizens were imprisoned for any "seditious speech" that brought the president or Congress into "contempt or disrepute."
On becoming president, Thomas Jefferson pardoned everyone convicted under that law. Perhaps Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will liberate impertinent citizens of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
I also thought of Alan Barth when retired Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady, who speaks for the Citizens Flag Alliance, applauded the House of Representatives for passing a constitutional amendment that would punish anyone who desecrates Old Glory. Declared Maj. Gen. Brady: "Today's vote is a victory for freedom of speech."
Not to be outdone in protecting our liberties, Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) instructed the nation: "This amendment does not in any way alter the First Amendment."
Barth also used to remind us that "the Constitution is a limitation not alone upon government. It is a limitation on the people, on us. Sometimes it keeps us from doing what we would like to do."
And sometimes it doesn't keep us from forgetting that, as Barth wrote, "a free society is a society in which there is a wide tolerance of diversity."
In August, a listener to Brian Lehrer -- host of New York Public Radio station WNYC's "On the Line" -- reported that in an office, while an employee was listening to Howard Stern on the radio, a colleague, passing by, heard the radio and later filed a formal complaint with their employer that she had been sexually harassed by being exposed to the program.
Another point Barth made was that "free men can never rely on courts alone for the preservation of their freedom. Courts can give warning of danger. But they are really powerless to protect us from ourselves." As they are often powerless to protect the most vulnerable among us from their captors:
In March, Federal District Judge Wayne Justice issued a 167-page opinion in Ruiz v. Johnson that declared that despite decades of judicial oversight, horrific constitutional violations continue to thrive in Texas prisons.
Among his findings of cruel and unusual punishment -- despite the Eighth Amendment in the Bill of Rights -- "Texas inmates continue to live in fear. Fear that is incomprehensible to most of the state's free-world citizens." Many prisoners, he added, are "raped, beaten and sold by more powerful ones." And the wardens and guards let it happen.
Prisoners, Judge Justice added, have a constitutional right to be protected from known sources of physical harm, but in Texas, "instead, they pay for protection in money, services or sex. Such practices and conditions cannot stand in our society, under our Constitution."
These conditions -- including excessive force by their guards -- have continued under the leadership of Gov. George W. Bush. And there has been no groundswell of compassionate concern from the great majority of Texans of any party -- even the Reform Party -- for this desecration of the Constitution.
Alan Barth once wrote that "with a very few exceptions, the press employs a standard of responsibility that is no more than a gloss for . . . letting well enough alone."
And with a very few exceptions -- such as a recent in-depth Houston Chronicle article by Kathy Walt -- that indictment still stands with regard to reporting on what happens behind the walls of prisons, and not only in Texas.