Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, in May suggested two amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2013. One which causes worry would repeal a part of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 that prevented the Department of State from spreading its own propaganda within the country.
Though the act passed without the amendment, its consideration highlights a danger that threatens U.S. citizens rights to freedom of speech via the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Smith-Mundt Act was meant to help the U.S. government curtail the prevalence of communism by allowing the use of propaganda to counter such information.
Smith said the proposed amendment would not allow any information that was intended to influence public opinion in the U.S., and it would only be used on a foreign audience. But there no way to ensure that this distinction occurs. By allowing the State Department to rebut terrorist propaganda, with counter-propaganda or advertisements that are sympathetic to a specific cause, the bill will allow an inherent influence of public opinion.
A press release from the representatives states that the amendment would allow the U.S. to counter al-Qaedas spreading of anti-American ideas, especially because of its ability to permeate the Internet. Smith said in his official statement that though the 1948 act was effective in countering communism during its time, it limits effective strategic communication and public diplomacy to counter al-Qaedas propaganda.
This change in domestic information dissemination may not mean using similar slogans and advertisements as were used during World War II or the Cold War to fuel American sentiments against purported enemies. Yet an amendment that would allow for the possibility of such an action, were it to pass, cannot guarantee that such advertisements are not broadcast.
The possibility that an amendment of this nature will be introduced on the Senate floor or during further review by the House or Senate remains.
Most significantly, such an amendment, though it does not explicitly encroach upon public domestic opinion, has the potential to infringe upon freedom of speech rights and freedom of the press rights by preventing the broadcast of certain information.
The fact that this change has even been considered and may be brought forward in the future for further consideration threatens the foundations upon which the U.S. is built. Lawmakers must tread carefully and consider the implications, both short- and long-term, of opening for discussion this potential intrusion.
Zein Kattih is a junior majoring in cell and molecular biology.