Did you know that it is legal to publish information on how to make a hydrogen bomb? The Progressive magazine did it in 1979 after fending off a government attempt to censor it.
In light of that, it makes the latest brouhaha about printing a single-shot pistol seem silly. After all, what are the digital blueprints to a crude firearm compared to those of a thermonuclear weapon that can level entire cities?
Fundamentally, the question is the same in each case: can the United States government suppress the free exchange of information if it decides the information meets a threshold for being too dangerous? The answer is unequivocally no.
Free Exchange of Information
Communication is a pre-existing right, a natural right, that is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. It is a right that naturally exists and is not granted by any government or political body. In fact, speaking out against the government is considered by many people to be the purest form of protected speech.
Time and again, this right has been recognized by the court system even when the communication is considered dangerous or would be detrimental to the government. This right has been recognized to protect nearly all kinds of communication including advocating for violence at a KKK rally, desecrating the US flag, publication of the “Pentagon Papers” and sharing the secrets of nuclear weapons in The H-Bomb Secret.
I list these specific examples because they can be uncomfortable, offensive and damaging to people and/or the government. But it is only that which we find offensive, frightening or dangerous that needs protection. Speech that everyone agrees with needs no such protection.
Among the rights protected by the First Amendment is the right to speech. Specifically, the Constitution reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…
No law abridging the freedom of speech. None.
Nevertheless, we have allowed the government to restrict various forms of speech from the earliest days of the Republic. Alexander Hamilton, for example, helped to draft and push through the Sedition Act of 1798 that imprisoned people for speaking or publishing anything identified to be against the government or president.
During World War I, the Woodrow Wilson administration jailed hundreds of people who spoke out against the government. And lest you think these kinds of issues are only in our distant past, consider that the Barrack Obama administration prosecuted whistle blowers under the same WWI Espionage Act – more than all prior administrations combined.
However, just because the government has trespassed upon our rights in the past, does not make it right today. Otherwise abhorrent practices of the past such as slavery, segregation, racial concentration camps and mass sterilization could still be legitimate practices today.
More Than Just Speech
As it was understood by the people at the time the US Constitution was adopted, and as it has been recognized by the courts throughout the years since, speech includes other forms of expression including writings, art and video. Dangerous ideologies are also protected.
Here in the United States, printed materials have always been considered protected speech. Publications like the magazine High Times and the various books on revenge, weapon making, creating false identities and hiding from the law have enjoyed broad protections for decades. Web sites, e-mail and other forms of electronic communication are also protected in spite of government encroachment in the digital realms.
Computer code, a recipe if you will, for creating a gun also has the same protection. Information can be dangerous, but the possibility for unlawful use by someone does not usurp the rights of law abiding citizens to read, possess, create and disseminate it.
Where Do You Stand?
I recognize that most of my readers are pro-gun people and are likely to support the ability to publish information on making guns. However, for the First Amendment to truly be strong enough to protect that right, all forms of communication must be defended by all of us – even, and especially, when such speech is uncomfortable.
Are you willing to defend someone’s right to burn a US flag? What about someone’s right to hang an effigy of President Trump? Would you support someone’s right to advocate for a repeal of the Second Amendment?
Standing up for uncomfortable – even crude, ugly and repugnant – communication is difficult. You don’t have to agree with the content, but will you stand for someone’s right to say or publish it? After all, that’s what we are asking people who dislike guns to do here: support our right to publish information about making firearms.
In 1979, I was just a dumb kid building models, playing Dungeons & Dragons and marveling over the relatively new Atari 2600 video game system. Even though I disagree with probably every single political aim The Progressive has, I’d like to think that I would have willingly spoken out for its right to publish The H-Bomb Secret had I been old enough.
Sadly, I don’t expect The Progressive or its readers to do the same for us today. Perhaps I could remind them of what Ron Carbon, the former publisher of The Progressive, wrote in his article “Afterthoughts – March ’81”:
Some of our colleagues in the mass media felt that ours was not a good First Amendment test case, since it involved the emotion-charged issue of nuclear secrecy…But we know there is no such thing as a “good” First Amendment test case: The First Amendment comes under attack only when someone thinks there is an urgent reason for curbing freedom – and it is precisely in those circumstances that the First Amendment must be upheld.
Replace “nuclear secrecy” with “guns” and see if that shoe still fits.
And if you believe they should be supporting us right now, will you show the same consistency the next time your ideological opponents are threatened with an abridgment of their rights?