In the past 10 months, the Reagan administration has taken a series of political and legal actions that reflect a dangerous trend of undermining the values embodied in the First Amendment. There is no evidence that these various decisions were coordinated, except perhaps those involving the intelligence community. But there is evidence that-- when faced with policy alternatives--the administration has consistently favored a philosophy of content censorship and suppression of government information rather than one encouraging the free flow of information and ideas.
Ultimately, this suppression philosophy is going to restrict the political rights of all citizens because it is going to limit news about government actions and decision-making that the public should have to evaluate the performance of its elected and appointed officials.
Here is a partial chronology of this emerging pattern:
May: Attorney General William French Smith decrees that government information requested under the federal Freedom of Information Act should be suppressed if any technical argument can be found supporting the suppression.
June: The administration supports the most punitive version of a bill that would make it a crime for the press to identify an intelligence agent or his source--even if the agent's name comes from public sources and even if the agent is violating federal law or agency regulations.
June: The administration asks the Supreme Court to rule that dossiers compiled by the FBI of Nixon administration critics and sent to the White House purely for political purposes should be exempt from public disclosure under the FOIA.
August: According to a report in The New York Daily News, the CIA decides to give background information to newsmen going abroad "provided that when they returned, they briefed the agency" on the information they collected.
September: Attorney General Smith announces that he will seek injunctions against all former intelligence agents who write books or articles without obtaining CIA clearance, even if the articles do no damage to the national security.
September: CIA Director William Casey approves a proposed presidential executive order that would allow intelligence agents to infiltrate and attempt to influence the activities of domestic organizations, including organizations whose main purpose is the pursuit of First Amendment goals, such as political groups, the news media and universities.
September: Casey tells Congress that the CIA should be entirely exempt from the FOIA because the act is jeopardizing intelligence sources.
October: The Justice Department refuses to come to the aid of a Charleston, W. Va., Daily Mail reporter, who was subpoenaed by the National Labor Relations Board in violation of the department's own guidelines on subpoenas to the press.
October: White House officials draft a proposed executive order designed to keep secret more historical documents in the areas of national defense and national security.
October: The Justice Department asks the Supreme Court to rule that, under the FOIA, passport and citizen application information filed by high officials of a foreign government--in this case, Iran--can be kept secret from the public. The case was won by The Washington Post Company in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
October: The administration introduces its bill to cripple the federal FOIA. This bill would provide for:
New secrecy for law enforcement documents, including those documents showing that the FBI violated the law or its own regulations in investigations involving counter-intelligence, terrorism or organized crime.
New secrecy for all official memos and notes dictated by or made as a "convenience" for government officials in the official performance of their government duties--even if these memos show that the government official has recommended or approved of illegal agency actions.
New secrecy for information about dangerous foods and drugs, unsafe consumer goods, deceptive advertising, pollution or environmental hazards and other welfare threats contained in documents submitted by business to Cabinet agencies.
New secrecy for the details of all lawsuits settled by the government, including settlements accomplished by improper political pressure or conflicts of interest.
New secrecy for all government documents based on a radical expansion of the privacy exemption in the current FOIA.
New fees and royalties for government research studies and reports--in effect, establishing for the first time a government copyright on government information.
Whatever the reasons for it, the president and his advisers should recognize that this emerging mosaic of secrecy and censorship is bound to have a dangerous impact on the public welfare.