12/01/2010 09:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Free Speech Is About More Than Copyright Issues

The press and the Internet are awash in stories and commentary about WikiLeaks. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about freedom of speech versus national security. Everyone, that is, except the public interest groups that are concerned about 'free speech' only as it relates to their anti-copyright agenda.

Where is the Electronic Frontier Foundation's support for Julian Assange? Why hasn't the EFF issued a press statement in his defense since they are obviously in support of WikiLeaks.

Where is Public Knowledge's outrage that Pfc. Bradley Manning has been arrested since they have been such rabid advocates of the right to 'share' information over the Internet? Do they only consider that 'right' worth defending in the case of illegal downloaders of movies and music?

How about a statement from Free Press? How can they remain silent on perhaps the most important freedom of the press issue in a decade and concentrate instead on an obscure corporate squabble like Level 3 versus Comcast?

If there was ever a moment to engage in the discussion of freedom of speech on the internet this should be their moment.

Their silence is deafening.

Which begs the question: Is free speech actually important to these folks? Or is freedom of speech just a convenient tool in their attack against copyright?

As a member of the songwriting community, when I read about WikiLeaks releasing thousands of pages of stolen, classified U.S. national security documents to the public on the Internet without much review or forethought, I wasn't the least bit surprised. After all, I have watched thieves post thousands of songs, movies, software and ebooks on pirate websites for years. Why would they stop there?

But I am shocked that EFF and Public Knowledge haven't come out in support of WikiLeaks, since they are so loudly in support of the speech rights of pirate sites that have been illegally distributing copyrighted material for years under the catch-all justification that they provide "important forums for speech".

WikiLeak's supporters argue that because the American government has notoriously over-classified documents in the past to shield itself from criticism, First Amendment speech freedoms entitle the organization to ignore the details and dangers inherent in such a haphazard release. Their principal argument, apparently, is that such behavior serves the overall public good. Even if there is collateral damage. Even if careers are unnecessarily ruined and lives are endangered. Even if rational people might conclude that such activity, conducted irresponsibly, does not serve the public good at all. WikiLeak's First Amendment freedom to disseminate any information it cares to trumps all that, it maintains. Their mantra is the same oversimplified canard spouted endlessly by the anti-copyright crowd: "Information wants to be free."

For years, organizations such as EFF and Free Press have used this bumper-sticker First Amendment rationale to justify the wholesale destruction of America's professional creative community through their support for the looting of copyrighted works on the Internet. Erecting a phony shield of free speech, these organizations have repeatedly defended copyright infringing websites as the preferred method of entertainment distribution. And like the gang at WikiLeaks, they see no inherent need to modify their behavior -- or that of their constituents -- with troubling issues such as ethics and law. Free speech trumps all. Deal with it.

WikiLeak's activities give us a fresh opportunity to ask some important questions that lately haven't gotten much airing. Don't speech freedoms come with at least a modicum of responsibility in their exercise, starting with the famous dictum about the illegality and immorality of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater? Yes, there has been governmental cover-up of wrongdoing in the past through over-classification that is antithetical to democratic principles of government. Yes, there have been abusive copyright owners who have exploited creators and attempted to thwart the public's fair use privileges. But are these really justifications for positions taken in favor of wholesale data dumps of classified documents or the widespread looting of artistic works?

Perhaps the time has come for a rebirth of understanding among the Internet intelligentsia that speech freedoms demand more from citizens in the way of ethical responsibility than we have recently been seeing. You know, to really serve the greater public good.

I would love to hear from Public Knowledge, EFF, and Free Press on how they feel about this issue, but I guess they aren't going to engage unless the government decides to prosecute Pfc. Manning for illegally downloading those Lady GaGa songs he had on the CD RW he allegedly used to steal the government documents.