Keeping an eye on Big Brother to preserve freedom of speech

Rather than a foreboding sign, the Big Brother syndrome - already being touted ominously by the media in these fledgling days of 1984 - should be seen as a call to action by those who cherish individual rights and personal privacy.

Despite the claims of the doomsayers, the Orwellian scenario not only hasn't come about, it isn't even in the offing. We are not about to become slaves of the state, oppressed by all-pervasive government control. And that is because American society is committed to a sense of individual justice and compassion which just won't permit us to be swallowed up by government or technology or anything else.

Irving Kristol, professor of political thought at New York University, puts it aptly: ''There never will be a 1984, in Orwell's sense, just as there will never be a socialist or communist or any other kind of utopia.''

Professor Kristol explains that there is within mankind ''an indestructible essense of humanity'' which won't allow suppression of human liberty to flourish. And he suggests that this ''soul'' or ''conscience,'' as he calls it, is what we should be celebrating this year.

His thoughts are right to the point - and reassuring. But there is still a lesson: We must be careful not to let down the barriers that prevent abuse of liberties, and we must continue to be zealous in guarding against any infringement of freedom.

The courts, Congress, and the public will have opportunity in coming months to hold the potential for Big Brother in check. One of the biggest tests is likely to come in the area of censorship.

Last spring, expressing ''grave concern'' about leaks of government secrets, President Reagan signed an order requiring over 100,000 government employees who handle security data to agree to prepublication review of any public utterances - speeches, written materials, and the like. That alone was enough to cause civil libertarians to hoist the First Amendment in indignation.

But the directive further suggested this was to be life-long censorship and that any government employee - whether or not suspected of leaking classified material - could be forced to take a polygraph (lie-detector) test.

Amid accusations that Big Brother was alive and well in the Oval Office, Congress postponed the effective date of the order from last October to next April.

One hopes the censorship directive will be significantly modified to apply only to material that clearly could compromise national security. And there needs to be a statute of limitations on how long it can cover the people it affects.

The impact of the order, as presently written, could range from the absurd to the horrendous. Among the questions that must be raised: Would former government officials, including ex-presidents, be forced to submit their memoirs for security review prior to publication? Would public workers be subjected to periodic polygraphs at the whim of officials? If the lie-detector results left a shadow of doubt about the subject's integrity, would the employee be disciplined or fired? And would publishers be responsible for detecting possibly offensive materials and reporting to the government?

These questions, among others, suggest the Reagan directive is likely to face judicial review. In fact, it isn't hard to envision government employees, even high public officials, in the bizarre position of having to sue the very administration they serve.

The ultimate questions, of course, are whether, first, this restriction is needed to shore up national security, and, second, whether censorship really is effective in plugging leaks.

Some government officials, including President Reagan, answer yes to both questions. And they stress that disclosure of sensitive military data can be particularly damaging in a world in which nuclear stakes are high. Present safeguards, they say, just don't do the job.

Constitutionalists, among others, take the opposite view. They point out that federal law already makes unauthorized disclosure of classified materials a crime. And they say that the proposed directive might keep government workers from sharing a host of nonsensitive information to which the public has a right.

These rules also could open the door to political abuse - including prosecutions of those who criticize government policy. One needs only to look back a decade to the Pentagon-papers case, in which an over-zealous administration, eager to make political dissident Daniel Ellsberg an example, filed inflated charges against him. A jury might well have found Ellsberg guilty of stealing classified government documents; it is less likely the government's charge of espionage could have been made to stick. Ironically, we'll never know , since the case ended in a mistrial and a dismissal of all charges, resulting from misconduct on the part of Nixon administration figures.

We should have learned by now that government misconduct is not an acceptable response to antigovernment misconduct. And we also should have learned that means which are constitutionally questionable, even if carried out in the name of national security, don't serve a useful end.

The nation must be defended from those who would threaten the well-being of its citizens; however, the price cannot be restriction of individual rights. Censorship, in any form, is not the safeguard of freedom.

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