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Hanging Out at the Playboy Mansion While Colonel Davis Waits for Justice

05/15/2013 02:31 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2013
  • Peter Van Buren Author of the forthcoming "Hooper's War," "Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent" and "We Meant Well"

Not to brag (OK, I'm bragging) but I am invited to the Playboy Mansion on May 22 to attend the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Awards. It is as good a place as any to hang out while one of this year's award winners, Colonel Morris Davis, waits (and waits...) for justice as he struggles to protect his and our right to speak out against the government.

Morris Davis v. Thomas Jefferson?

Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant, and for most of his career, unlikely to have been a guest at the Playboy Mansion. Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than 25 years as an Air Force colonel. He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture. When a torture advocate was named his boss, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.

Morris Davis then got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing an article in the Wall Street Journal about the evils of justice perverted at Guantanamo, and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson's library evidently escaped his bosses.) With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back. On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf. In March 2011 a federal court ruled against the Obama Administration's objections, and allowed that the suit could go forward (You can read more about Davis' struggle.)

Justice Postponed is Justice Denied

Moving "forward" is however a somewhat awkward term to use in regards to this case. In the past two years, forward has meant very little in terms of actual justice done. At about the same time in 2011 that Colonel Davis notified the government that he was going to be called as a defense witness for Bradley Manning, the Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss Davis' lawsuit against the government, actually seeking to make him pay the government's court costs, and hinted at potential criminal charges because he copied some unclassified files from his office computer. Of course three years had passed since these alleged 2010 criminal acts and DOJ's 2013 threats, so perhaps the timing was coincidence, but Colonel Davis said in an interview with me that he believes it was an attempt to discredit him and thus negate any help he could offer Manning.

Despite DOJ's clumsy efforts, the good news is that at a hearing about a month ago a federal judge denied the government's stalling motion and the case is moving "forward" again. However, DOJ is again seeking to stall things with multiple delaying motions that require multiple responses, and the motions alone won't be heard by a court until August. After that comes a lengthy discovery period that will likely take the case to the four year mark. Colonel Davis hopes he'll get to trial before the five year point. He is a strong man, navigating more successfully between the empowering anger and the consuming bitterness than most people struggling against the government of the United States can manage. Still, it is hard for him to rationalize the amount of time and effort his own government is spending to limit the free speech rights of federal employees.

Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards

The government's ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on. In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in. All that stands in counter to the government's actions is the First Amendment, exactly as the Founders designed it to be.

The Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards were established in 1979 to honor individuals who make significant contributions to protect First Amendment rights for Americans. Since the inception of the awards, more than 100 individuals including high school students, lawyers, librarians, journalists and educators have been honored. I am very proud that two of last year's winners, whistleblowers Tom Drake and Jesselyn Radack, are my friends, and that Radack helped defend my right to speak against the Department of State.

So congratulations to Colonel Davis. He earned this award and I'll be proud to watch him receive it from Christie Hefner on May 22. He is in good company, as Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War era's version of Bradley Manning, is also being honored. By standing up against a government that is doing wrong, and seeking to bring those wrongs into daylight, both men have earned the privilege to be called patriots. All that said, it is an odd state of things. The only mainstream introspection of the government takes place on Comedy Central. Of all the possible ways I dreamed of getting into the Playboy Mansion over the years, this was not one of them. Nasty business, fighting for one's First Amendment rights these days. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, even at the Playboy Mansion.

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