Leave it to the Government to give us a definitive example of this problem: how do we tell if someone is being unethical or just infuriatingly dumb? Most of the time, of course, we can’t tell. You can conclude, however, that when high-placed leadership in a government agency, without a legitimate reason for doing so, takes action that makes those who worry about excessive government intrusion into private thought, speech and conduct quake in their boots, the end result is the same. Such actions cause an erosion of trust, the lifeblood of democratic societies. That makes the conduct dumb and unethical.
That would be my verdict regarding an internal directive that went out to all employees of the Transportation Security Administration at the beginning of July. It stated that TSA employees are no longer allowed access to five categories of websites that the TSA has decreed are “inappropriate for government access.” The categories are chat and messaging, criminal activity, extreme violence (including cartoon violence), gaming, and “controversial opinion.”
Doesn’t a certain document—the Constitution of the United States, I believe it’s called—protect controversial opinions, and guarantee all of its citizens, even those who work for the Government, the right to communicate, have access to, and hold such views? A directive like the TSA’s, which did not attempt to define “controversial,”can only be interpreted as “Big Brother Is Watching.” There is no definitive definition of what opinions are controversial, and speculation as to what this uber-political, openly ideological, thin-skinned, doctrinaire Administration (the last one was like this too) regards as controversial leads to disturbing conclusions. After all, the Obama Administration thinks that a state telling its police officers to try to enforce laws that the Federal Government refuses to enforce is controversial. This Administration believes it is controversial to question sacrificing jobs and resources for carbon emission reductions that nobody can say with any certainty will have any meaningful effect on global warming. It thinks it is controversial to maintain that members of Congress should actually read a bill before they vote for one establishing a massive and expensive change in the health care system. It seems to think that wanting to hold African-American race-bullies to the same standards as white race-bullies when it comes to blatant voter intimidation is controversial.
Is there any reasonable way to interpret this memo that does not suggest that it is an effort to constrain TSA employees’ abilities to inform themselves and think freely on the job? The memo doesn’t just say that employees can’t access White Supremecy sites, Neo-Nazi sites, man-boy love sites, pro-terrorist sites or anti-gay hate sites. It says, implicitly, that it is a violation of TSA policy to read The Drudge Report, the Fox News website, Charles Krauthammer’s page on the Washington Post website, or the site of the State of Arizona. In the absence of specifics, it is only reasonable to assume that controversial is anything that is contrary to the position of the Obama Administration. Was that the meaning the TSA meant to convey? What do you think?
I’m not 100% certain that the Government can’t prohibit access to what it thinks is controversail, but I am certain that it shouldn’t, and that it is scary, irresponsible and wrong when it does. If the TSA wants to ban all non-work-related uses of the internet during business hours, that is appropriate. Banning gaming, chat, extreme violence and criminal websites make sense. A prohibition on “controversial opinion”, however, is nothing more or less than a restriction on thought, an insistance on ideological conformity, and, to employ an over-used adjective that is justified in this case, un-American.
Is that unethical? Sure it is. Any time an American Government uses its power and authority to tell citizens that they have to toe the line regarding what they read and think, it is ominous, and creates a legitimate fear that the Government has abandoned traditional limits to its authority, as well as its respect for the public, public discourse, free debate, and the marketplace of ideas. The TSA, like all government agencies, has an ethical obligation to bolster, not erode, the public’s trust. I don’t trust governments that forbid me or any other citizens to read what those in power think are “controversial.” Nobody should.
It is interesting that the memo, while being broad enough to make TSA employees feel nervous about reading a website with opinions by George Will, Senator Kyl or Sean Hannity, did not prohibit the websites that caused a major Government embarrassment this year, when it was revealed that Securities Exchange Commission lawyers logged thousands of hours on them instead of stopping crooked bankers and financial con-men. I am referring to, of course, pornography sites.
There’s no doubt about it. The TSA memo was unethical, and infuriatingly dumb too.