Opinion

Law often complex, and it often depends on... | Rich Elfers

Edward Snowden leaked information about the National Security Agency PRISM Program that spied on emails and phone calls between foreign nationals and American citizens. The program was set up to find terrorist plots before Americans were killed. Snowden, 29, fled to Hong Kong before leaking the information to avoid likely arrest for revealing state secrets. PRISM was approved by Congress, the Court and President George W. Bush and then renewed and agreed upon by the new Congress, the Court and President Obama.

This recent revelation brings to the fore larger issues elected officials must struggle with: where is the line between protecting the public versus guaranteeing individual rights? The answer to this question is not easily determined. That tension is embodied in the Bill of Rights and is the basis for much of the conflict we see in our nation today:

Amendment 1--Freedom of Speech:  According to Snowden, he leaked the PRISM Program because he thought the government was unlawfully invading the privacy of American citizens. In other words, the government had violated an individual’s right to privacy guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment.  He knew he might be imprisoned for revealing this information, but as a matter of conscience felt he must stop this alleged abuse of power.

The government’s response was that revealing PRISM to the world informed potential terrorists as to U.S. information-gathering methods and therefore put the American public at risk. Who is correct and what is more important in regard to these leaks will be discussed and debated for years to come.

Another recent First Amendment issue in the news deals with the right of the Obama Administration to find sources of government leaks by examining reporter emails and phone records, calling a Fox News’ reporter, “a criminal-co-conspirator” because he had gained information about North Korea from a State Department official. This issue clearly demonstrates the continuing tug-and-pull between public safety and the right of the individual – in this case the State Department employee and the reporter – to discuss current topics.

Investigating reporters set the precedent of discouraging whistleblowers from revealing sensitive information to the press. For a change both the right and left were united in their agreement that the administration had crossed the line over First and Fourth Amendment protections. So, who is right and what is more important?

Amendment 2: Right to Bear Arms: Because of recent attacks on American citizens by machine gun-wielding fanatics, the question arises about the limits of this right.

Where is the line between the guarantee of the right to “bear arms” and possessing weapons like AK-47s? What is the acceptable number of bullets that should be allowed in a magazine clip – five, 10 or 30? Should anyone be allowed to buy these highly destructive weapons? What are the limits to requiring background checks?

In other words, where does freedom of the individual conflict with the need to protect public safety? Each group, whether the NRA or the families of shooting victims, has differing definitions of where the line should be drawn. The answer can often only be found in a court of law.

So what is the answer?  Based upon what I was taught by an attorney when I went to city council training, the answer is, “That depends.”  Each incident must be examined in the light of the tension between the need to protect public safety and the protection of individual rights. That’s why understanding how the law works under the Bill of Rights is complex. Those who want simple black-and-white answers are not going to be satisfied, but that is the price of having the Bill of Rights. The law is not black and white. But not everyone is content with its level of complexity.

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