JFK On Secrecy And Censorship

from the blast-from-the-past dept

Glyn Moody points us to a blog post that has a video/audio clip of a John F. Kennedy speech to the press about secrecy and censorship, which is getting some attention for the contrast to the way our government is responding to the Wikileaks controversy.
The key paragraph is the one that opens the video:
The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
Compare that to the way our government has been responding -- demanding that US companies block access to Wikileaks and other such moves.

Of course, if you read the full speech from JFK (which was given to the American Newspaper Publishers Association), it's really quite nuanced. JFK argues forcefully against censorship from the government -- but actually is suggesting that the press consider self-censoring itself, taking into account the impact that it could have if it publishes certain information. However, he does try to make it clear that he does not want criticism or errors to be shielded from the public -- just that he hopes the press will decide for themselves to avoid publishing info that directly reveals vital points to enemies of the country.

In the end, I actually think these two paragraphs may be even more powerful than the one that most people are talking about:
I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers--I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed--and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment-- the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply "give the public what it wants"--but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
Too bad we're not hearing much of that from our politicians today.

Filed Under: censorship, jfk, secrecy

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    weneedhelp (profile), 4 Jan 2011 @ 1:00pm


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