Export more freedom

America isn't the exporter that it used to be. All across the nation, plants and factories have closed, victims of cheap foreign labor and cheap-shot trade tactics by our competitors.

But one thing we should never tire of exporting in this country is freedom. And the foundation of our freedom is set out in the 45 glorious words of our First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

"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."

It's an amazing string of words and phrases -- arguably the most important ever assembled in human history. And it's pretty simple and straightforward, as Columbia University professor Jim Carey sums up:

"It says that the government can't tell you how to worship. It says that if you have something to say you can say it. If you want to, you can write it down and publish it. If you want to talk about it with others, you can assemble. And if you have a grievance, you can let the government know about it, and nobody can stop you."

Still, as with a house's foundation, there are threats and stresses to the foundation of our freedom every day -- most commonly against our freedom of speech.

As recently as 35 years ago, the federal government had in its pointy little head that it could prevent the publication of material it disagreed with. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court said in the Pentagon Papers case that the government could not censor the press and its people. As Justice Hugo Black wrote in the case:

"The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people."

Word doesn't always get around, and the press and the people are constantly called to exert their rights to free speech and publication and government watchdogging.

These days, the battle is in the private sector as much as the public. And sometimes it's downright idiotic: A casino worker was once fired for posting at work a "Dilbert" comic strip comparing managers to drunken lemurs.

It goes without saying, too, that word of our basic rights has failed to spread throughout the world.

Recently, Inner City Press, a Web site that watches and criticizes the United Nations and its corruption and ineptness, was taken off the "Google News" listing of news stories for about a week. Google says someone complained that Inner City Press was a one-man operation, and that's why it was de-listed. Others wonder if Inner City Press journalist Matthew Lee had simply rattled too many chains at the United Nations.

Ultimately, the site was re-listed on Google News. But the lesson here may be twofold: that international organizations such as the United Nations still don't get the basics about human freedom; and that in the dawn of the Information Age, Internet giants have unprecedented power to censor and shun people and Web sites for reasons that may or may not be nefarious, and may or may not align with our First Amendment guarantees.

We hope that the pioneers of cyberspace are fully versed in basic human rights and grounded upon the words and spirit of the First Amendment.

We've got to protect our rights at home, and export them abroad.

It's never been more important than now.

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