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Friday, April 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

Defending the people's right to know

Special to The Times

A nation cannot be free without free speech. It's why the Framers made freedom of speech the First Amendment to the Constitution. It's why 19 major news organizations representing thousands of journalists have joined to support me in my First Amendment case.

And, it's why The Seattle Times, instead of criticizing me, ought to be standing with me to defend the people's right to know ["McDermott's leak is no better" Times editorial, April 9].

More than nine years ago, Republican congressional leaders, called together by Rep. Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House and third in line to be president, met in secret to plot deception against the American people. We know only because one of those involved, Rep. John Boehner, attended the meeting by cellphone, thus broadcasting the entire secret meeting on the open airwaves, available to anyone who happened to be listening to a consumer scanner.

A couple in Florida heard it, recognized the voices, and understood the implications of what they were hearing. They taped the call and drove to Washington, D.C., where they stopped me in a hallway and handed me a sealed envelope. We had never met before nor have we met since. They believed the people had a right to know what Republican leaders were plotting. After listening to the tape, I agreed, and gave it to two newspapers.

For more than nine years, we have persevered in defending the First Amendment. Early on, the case was dismissed, specifically because of my First Amendment rights, only to be resurrected by Republican leaders seeking retribution.

As anyone who ever bothered to ask me knows, Republicans are not interested in settling. Although we did have discussions about settling, they got nowhere. But instead of maintaining their confidentiality, Boehner has publicized them and misrepresented what was said. He violated the privacy of our discussions in order to use rhetoric as a ruse to rally their base and raise money, so they might continue their assault on free speech.

Recently, the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 against our position. Judge David Sentelle, a Republican appointed by President Ronald Reagan, wrote a strongly worded dissent:

"I see no distinction, nor has Representative Boehner suggested one, between the constitutionality of regulating communication of the contents of the tape by McDermott or by The Washington Post or The New York Times or any other media resource. For that matter, every reader of the information in the newspapers also learned that it had been obtained by unlawful intercept. Under the rule proposed by Representative Boehner, no one in the United States could communicate on this topic of public interest because of the defect in the chain of title. I do not believe the First Amendment permits this interdiction of public information either at the stage of the newspaper-reading public, of the newspaper-publishing communicators, or at the stage of Representative McDermott's disclosure to the news media."

From Watergate, to plotting to mislead the American people, to the Iraq war: None of it would have been uncovered without First Amendment protection. After talking with us, The Washington Post recently published an editorial titled: "Ban Snooping, Not Free Speech." That is what's at stake in my First Amendment case, but The Seattle Times is on the sidelines throwing stones. If you want to accuse me of being partisan, fine. But don't undermine my right, and yours, and every American's, to protect and defend our country against leaders who would plot in private to mislead the public.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, represents the 7th Congressional District in Washington state.

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