Free Speech Lawyer: "There's Nothing Wrong With Having Something To Hide"

Apr 17, 2017

As Donald Trump closes in on his 100th day in office, many of his critics continue to claim that his administration is threatening protections under the First Amendment. A forum taking place Tuesday night at the University of Nevada, Reno explores that idea.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick spoke with David Greene, one of the event’s panelists and the Civil Liberties Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to learn more.

KUNR: What kind of challenges to the First Amendment are you seeing in your work as a lawyer specializing in free speech protections?

Greene: We see a lot of things. There’s still of lot of classic cases of civil lawsuits between people based on online speech. We’re also very involved in issues of government surveillance. I do a lot of work crafting arguments about government surveillance, especially mass surveillance of communications, is an abridgment of free speech rights.

How do we strike that balance between privacy and security, particularly in a digital world?

I always try and push back on the framing of the question that way. I don’t necessarily think there’s generally a tradeoff. I think many times privacy and security, and even free speech and security, are complementary. They actually work in tandem.

Law enforcement gets very frustrated when it doesn’t have access to information, because it limits its investigative abilities. And it’s true that our free speech protections includes the protection of people to speak in a way where the government isn’t monitoring what they’re speaking, but also to speak anonymously.

That does not necessarily deny the government access to valuable investigative material. It might make it more difficult for the government to look at materials and determine whether it’ll be useful for them. And in that situation, there is indeed a balance. And in those cases, there are still substantial protections for speech.

What kind of protections are there for speech? I know many people who say, “I’m not doing anything wrong. What do I care if the government or a company sees my messages?” What protections are there, and what’s the danger in that kind of complacent thinking?

Whenever I hear the response, “Well I have nothing to hide. I’d rather have the safety of the government looking through my information,” I have three responses to that. One is that I’m not sure I believe you. I’m not sure that everybody is really comfortable with the government, which is just other human beings, looking through all their private communications. I think actually people would be quite uncomfortable with some of their communications and some of their information being seen by other people.

Even if I did believe you, it’s a statement that comes from a position of privilege. There are people who don’t have the luxury of having nothing to hide. There are people whose communications are being targeted by the government, even though they’re not doing anything wrong. And we can’t as people who feel secure that the government won’t find anything useful against them, have an obligation to our fellow citizens to protect everybody’s rights.

My third response is that there’s really nothing wrong with having something to hide. That’s what a representative government is about. You have a right to be a thorn in the government’s side. You have a right to protest. You have a right to criticize. And to the extent that you need some privacy protections in order to be able to do that, that’s a good thing. That’s positive for our democracy.

You’re in Reno as a panelist for the First Amendment Under Fire Forum at UNR. So I have to ask...is the First Amendment under fire?

Well I think that there’s always pressure against the First Amendment and against free speech principles. I don’t think that’s something that’s going to change. Free speech is really hard, and many people who seek to restrict free speech do so because of a fear that there’s been grave harm.

So I think free speech under fire may refer specifically to some of the things the administration has said about sort of trying to loosen up libel laws, deny press access to information, things like that, I think that could be interpreted as perhaps a different fire than we were facing before.

KUNR is co-hosting the forum, The First Amendment Under Fire? along with the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. The event takes place Tuesday, April 18 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Joe Crowley Student Union.