White House sued for free speech violations
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, claims that the call for such information was designed to shut up opponents of President Obama's health-care reform proposal and to chill free speech.
In the lawsuit, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) and the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education (CARE) claim the White House had "illegally" used its power to collect information on political speech. It claimed that the White House knew its data collection would chill free speech and in fact intended to do just that. The suit demands that the White House remove any information it might have already collected and that it be prohibited from collecting personal data in the future.
The lawsuit stems from a move by the White House earlier this month to push back on what it claimed was disinformation being spread about Obama's health-care reform plans. In an Aug. 4 blog post, Macon Phillips, director of new media at the White House, lamented what he called the disinformation and rumors that often traveled via chain e-mails or through casual conversations.
"Since we can't keep track of all of them here at the White House, we're asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the Web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to email@example.com," the post said.
The blog post sparked widespread criticism from Republicans and others who saw it as a White House attempt to compile a list of those who were opposed to its position on health-care reform. In a statement, the American Center for Law and Justice, an organization that focuses on constitutional law, said the move appeared to be an attempt to shut down "honest debate" and called on the president to repudiate comments urging the public to flag and report fishy comments. In a statement announcing the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for the AAPS, claimed she had started receiving hate mail shortly after the White House blog was posted.
On Aug. 17, Phillips posted another blog expressing surprise at the criticism over the earlier post and said it was "ironic that the launch of an online program meant to provide facts about health insurance reform has itself become the target of fear-mongering." In his blog post, Phillips said the e-mail address that had been provided was closed down and to "consolidate the process" he urged that all feedback be instead sent through: http://www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/contact. He also asked posters not to submit names of other individuals without their permission.
Kathryn Serkes, director of policy and public affairs for the AAPS, conceded that the lawsuit's demand that the White House destroy any information it might have collected from the public was at odds with the requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974. Under the act, the White House is prohibited from destroying any communications it receives.
"That is the dilemma here," Serkes said. One of the questions the court will have to decide is whether information that was "gathered in an illegal manner" is exempt from the requirements of the Privacy Act, she said.
The White House press office could not be immediately reached for comment.