'Gag' order contradicts U.S. value Iraqis like
Judge Gilbert S. Merritt
By GILBERT S. MERRITT
For The Tennessean
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Federal appellate judge Gilbert S. Merritt of Nashville is in Iraq as one of 13 experts selected by the U.S. Justice Department to help rebuild Iraq's judicial system.
Merritt, 67, has made trips to Russia and India to work with their judicial systems. He has been sending periodic reports to The Tennessean about his experiences in Iraq and filed this dispatch recently:
This is my last story from Baghdad. The so-called Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, acting through its head, L. Paul Bremer, issued a ''gag'' order two days ago that says:
''Speaking To The Media. To insure the effective co-ordination of the CPA's message, any plan for a member of the CPA to talk to the media should first be coordinated with the Directorate of Strategic Communication.''
The Directorate of Strategic Communication, according to the order, was a ''recent creation designed with the intention of delivering a coherent strategic information for the CPA.''
The CPA is organized into many separate agencies covering governance, justice, transportation and communication, health, oil, police, culture, finance and several others. All persons working or helping these agencies carry out their tasks are apparently covered by the order prohibiting speaking to the press unless the speech is cleared first by the Directorate of Strategic Communication.
I have been informed that this includes any article I may write, or verbal utterance I may speak, to any members of the press, including my hometown newspaper.
In my opinion, this is a clear violation of the First Amendment to our Constitution, which says that our government may not impose any law, regulation or directive ''abridging the freedom of speech.'' The First Amendment covers any attempt by our government to control the speech of a civilian citizen of the United States, with only a few exceptions.
There are many cases in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals ‹ more than 2,000 ‹ that hold that the Free Speech Clause covers state and federal officials and employees. Those cases secure to such employees the right to speak on matters of public concern broadly defined and to converse with the press and others without abridgment or control.
It is true that the government may restrict the release of classified information by its employees, and it may regulate speech that could create ‹ in the words of an old Supreme Court case ‹ a ''clear and present'' danger for its citizens.
But this limitation on speech is far broader than that. It includes all speech ‹ ''any plan for any member of CPA to talk to the media.''
Although the order is clearly unconstitutional, in my view, I intend to comply with its terms from now until I leave Iraq and am no longer subject to it. I will be leaving in a few days to meet my wife, Robin, in Istanbul for a few days' vacation before returning home to Nashville.
It is, to say the least, ironic that, as a federal judge, I was asked to come here to try to help erect and establish constitutional values for the Iraqis, including the rights of free speech and other civil liberties.
Americans are entitled to speak their minds, especially on matters involving government, politics, law, foreign policy and other public concerns. We value robust debate because our founding fathers believed that open debate was good in itself and would lead to better public policy, more scientific and technological progress and better artistic expression.
That is what the Iraqis admire about us and wish to have for themselves. They are thankful that we have liberated them from the tyrant so that they may now have prosperity through freedom of contract and free speech.
Yet, irony of ironies, our own citizens here must now clear our own speech with CPA so that our American values and policies, according to the directive, ''are launched in a coherent and coordinated manner'' pleasing to the Directorate of Strategic Communication of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Having ''launched'' our bombs and won the war quickly, I do not think that this kind of control of free speech is the kind of free speech policy most Americans want us to ''launch'' in Iraq.
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