Justice Department Censors Supreme Court Quote

Offers Smoking Gun Proof That Document Redactions Are Often a Joke

>>> Anybody who has read many official documents—including those making headlines in the last year or more—has seen plenty of redactions (those portions that are blacked out or otherwise made unreadable). This, we're told, is for legitimate reasons, such as "national security" or "protecting intelligence sources and methods." But now we have absolute, incontrovertible proof that the government also censors completely innocuous material simply because they don't like it.

The Justice Department tipped its hand in its ongoing legal war with the ACLU over the Patriot Act. Because the matter is so sensitive, the Justice Dept is allowed to black out those passages in the ACLU's court filings that it feels should not be publicly released.

Ostensibly, they would use their powers of censorship only to remove material that truly could jeopardize US operations. But in reality, what did they do? They blacked out a quotation from a Supreme Court decision:

"The danger to political dissent is acute where the Government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect 'domestic security.' Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent."

The mind reels at such a blatant abuse of power (and at the sheer chutzpah of using national security as an excuse to censor a quotation about using national security as an excuse to stifle dissent).

It's hard to imagine a more public, open document than a decision written by the Supreme Court. It is incontestably public property: widely reprinted online and on paper; poured over by generations of judges, attorneys, prosecutors, and law students; quoted for centuries to come in court cases and political essays.

Yet the Justice Department had the incomprehensible arrogance and gall to strip this quotation from a court document, as if it represented a grave threat to the republic. Luckily, the court slapped down this redaction and several others. If it hadn't, we would've been left with the impression that this was a legitimate redaction, that whatever was underneath the thick black ink was something so incredibly sensitive and damaging that it must be kept from our eyes.

Now we know the truth. Think about this the next time you see a black mark on a public document.

The image at top shows a portion of the ACLU's court filing after the Justice Dept was allowed to censor it. The image below shows the restored passage. The full document is located here [PDF format], with background info here (includes many other documents in which the Justice Dept censored innocuous passages)..

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posted 27 Aug 2004
site and original text copyright 2002-4 Russ Kick