Free and unfettered are not the same.
At Tuesday afternoon’s news conference, White House spokesman Jay Carney kept going on about how President Obama believed in an “unfettered” press.
“The president believes that the press as a rule needs to have an unfettered ability to pursue investigative journalism,” he said. As a rule. Unfettered.
It was an odd choice of phrasing. Free means one thing. Unfettered means another. Unleashed, untrammeled, unconfined are different than free, just as Django Free and Django Unchained are hardly the same thing.
There’s a difference between being free to walk and not being prevented from walking. If you’ve just broken my shin it doesn’t matter that I am not tied down. I’m not going to get very far. It’s like the difference between “can I” and “may I”?
“Why aren’t you moving about the country?” you ask. “You aren’t chained up to anything.”
“Well,” you say, “I would, but I seem to be frozen solid into this large block of carbonite.”
Unfettered means you aren’t wearing your usual fetters. The American Heritage dictionary defines unfetter as “to set free or keep free from restrictions or bonds.” It’s an oddly negative word to pick when talking about liberty.
“Americans have the right to free speech” goes singing off the tongue. “Americans have the right to unfettered speech” sounds as though there is fine print somewhere. The Unfettering of Information Act sounds like the information has been huddled somewhere in adverse conditions and has seen no sunlight for several weeks. As FDR could tell you, the Four Areas in which Americans Are Unfettered doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as The Four Freedoms. “Are you free this afternoon?” and “Are you unfettered this afternoon?” conjure up wildly different images. (“I’m sorry, Dave is fettered this evening. Can I have him call you back?”)
I realize that Freedom has been diluted. Years of Freedom Fries and being implicated in the titles of Jonathan Franzen novels will do that to a word.
Carney also kept talking about the need for “balance” between security and “unfettering.” He said unfettered enough times that it would have been an unfit subject for a drinking game.
He noted that President Obama “is also committed, as president and as a citizen, to the proposition that we cannot allow classified information, that can do harm to our national security interests or do harm to individuals, to be leaked.”
True, as a senator, he co-sponsored a version of a media shield bill that could have prevented what happened to the AP. Then his administration insisted on significant changes to a shield bill in 2009 that sapped protections for reporters, for instance, from being forced into court to testify — and urged judges to defer to executive branch judgment about what leaks constituted serious national security risks.
Freedom has no restrictions. But if you’re unfettered, you can still be required to jump through some hoops. “Am I bothering you?” asks the man standing behind your shoulder as you type. “I’m not stopping you from doing your job, am I?” “No,” you say, sighing. “I feel completely unfettered.” It’s a subtle difference. Perhaps it’s just semantics. But I wish he’d picked a different word.