VA retaliation proves that free speech I fought to defend is under assault
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When I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, I didn’t know the dangers I would face, but I did know the reason I was willing to face them. I believed that the freedoms we enjoy as Americans were worth defending, and I still do. 

That’s why I’m saddened by the assault here at home on one of our foremost liberties: The First Amendment’s right to free speech, and in particular, the right to speak out about public policies and the politicians who enact them.

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Veterans know a thing or two about the importance of free speech, as well as how those in power seek to stifle it.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of former service members have been mistreated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the federal agency that’s supposed to serve us. We’ve been lied to. We’ve been shunted on to secret wait lists designed to hide long delays in veterans' care. And we’ve even seen some of our fellow veterans die at the agency’s hands. 

Our ability to speak out has been critical to combatting these wrongs and bringing them to the nation’s attention. Many brave veterans and VA employees have gone public with what they’ve seen — and in countless instances, the agency has responded by retaliating against these whistleblowers.

It seems like new examples surface on a weekly basis. The federal office in charge of handling the cases is “truly overwhelmed,” according to its leader. The number of incidents has also been growing rapidly. From 2013 to 2015, the office reported a 75 percent increase in whistleblower reprisal. It was estimated that more than 700 incidents were reported in 2015 alone. 

In every case, the intention was to silence those who had spoken out and frighten others not to speak out, either. But the same potential for abuse exists at every level of government. When their failings are made public, or when their ideas and records are held up to a spotlight, their first impulse of those in power is often to attack those who dare oppose them.

Such brazen tyranny is precisely what the First Amendment, with its guarantee of free speech, exists to prevent. It enables us to hold our elected officials accountable without fear of retaliation. We can even do so anonymously — something VA whistleblowers can’t do — or join together in private organizations, where many different voices can speak together, loudly, as one.

Our democratic society, unique in world history, can’t possibly exist without free speech. It separates our nation from so many others, as many of my fellow veterans can attest.

Yet politicians at every level of government are actively seeking to limit Americans’ ability to make their voices heard. They cloak this campaign as matters of “transparency,” “fairness” or “money in politics,” but none of this expresses the truth of the matter. At its most fundamental level, it would silence millions of Americans and shield politicians and bureaucrats from answering to the public.

This campaign takes many forms. At the federal level, we’ve already seen more than half of the U.S. Senate vote to rewrite the First Amendment to give Congress complete authority to control speech that deals with politics, with a specific eye towards forcing people and organizations to disclose their affiliations or banning their speech outright. We’ve also seen politicians and others demand that private organizations be forced to turn over lists of their supporters.

The threat is even more imminent at the state level. On Election Day, voters in South Dakota and Missouri adopted Measure 22 and Constitutional Amendment 2, respectively, which force private organizations to hand over personal information about their supporters to the government.

Other states such as Washington state and Oregon had similar proposals up for consideration. Fortunately, they were defeated this time, but will likely resurface in the future. Elected officials in California and New York have already implemented such government-mandated disclosure regimes.

No matter what form they take, these measures only stifle Americans’ ability to speak out and engage in politics — the essence of free speech. We need only look at what veterans and whistleblowers have experienced at the Department of Veterans Affairs to see what could be in store — and already is for those living in states like South Dakota.

When Americans are forced to publicly identify their beliefs and affiliations, it enables those in power to target them with threats, discrimination, retaliation, or worse. The transparent goal is to silence those who support certain organizations and prevent them from exercising their right to free speech.

Some politicians want to maintain their grip on power and stop those pesky voters from highlighting their records and holding them accountable, even though this means gutting the most important freedom undergirding our democracy.

We cannot let this happen. We must safeguard every American’s right to speak out against the government, in whatever way is best for them. The First Amendment doesn’t give politicians the power to dictate when, how, and even whether we exercise our right to free speech—just the opposite.

Veterans like me fought to protect this fundamental freedom. Now it’s up to all of us to defend it.

Dan Caldwell serves as the Vice President of Policy and Communications for Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) and is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.


 

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