Tomorrow it's us

September 18, 2002

PERHAPS THE GREATEST challenge to the First Amendment is that it is regularly invoked to defend something ugly.

Rarely are free speech protections necessary when the message is pleasing, and the messenger is popular. It's the flag-burners and the Klansmen and the pornographers who test our commitment to the notion that, short of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, anything goes. Ideas must be freely exchanged to rise or fall on their own merits -- not through government dictate.

And now the top guarantee in our Bill of Rights has been summoned once again, this time to liberate from secret files the hand-written rantings of terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui.

The Justice Department says those papers threaten the nation's safety. But if they are not released, the nation has something far more dangerous to fear than anything Mr. Moussaoui has to say. Today it's him, tomorrow it's us.

Mr. Moussaoui is charged with taking part in the conspiracy that led to the Sept. 11 attacks. A French citizen of Moroccan descent, he is being prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., under severe restrictions that have allowed prison officials to almost completely cut off his communication with the outside world.

But the defendant has found a way around those restrictions by acting as his own lawyer. He has filed more than 125 motions laced with threats, racial slurs and angry rhetoric that the government says may be intended as messages to co-conspirators.

Judge Leonie M. Brinkema agreed last month to the government's request to seal Mr. Moussaoui's pleadings, refusing even his request to release edited versions with objectionable material deleted. She said that would impose too great a burden on the government and the court.

A group of media organizations -- including Tribune Co., which owns The Sun -- has urged the judge to reconsider. If the government can't be bothered to screen Mr. Moussaoui's material, it ought to be released in its entirety. Let him rant.

This is yet another instance in which the Justice Department under President Bush has demonstrated a callous disregard, if not a fundamental misunderstanding, of the American liberties it is sworn to protect.

It is up to the courts to provide a civics lesson.

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