Public has a right to know what's going on in Congress

The Dec. 28 article, " 'What's in that bill?' The risk of deadline votes," underscores the danger posed to democratic society when those who enact and implement laws do so out of the public's view.

That Republican members of Congress locked their non-GOP colleagues out of the room when they slipped riders into various and sundry bills isn't the real problem; even if Democrats and Independents had been allowed to participate in crafting the measures, that would not have legitimized their doing so behind closed doors.

Many states, counties, and cities have excellent open-meeting laws that Washington would do well to emulate. Those laws don't provide a guarantee - some politicians regularly flout them with impunity - but they have, in varying degrees, achieved their drafters' aim of increasing the accountability that elected officials and policymaking bodies have to their constituents.

Congress should adopt rules - or, best, put forth a Constitutional amendment - recognizing the right of the people to know about the workings of their government and establishing guidelines to promote maximum sunshine on Capitol Hill.

The guidelines should, among other things, define narrowly and precisely the circumstances under which policymaking bodies and committees may meet privately; provide for taping or other means of verifying that they do not discuss secretly what they should be discussing in public; and declare that those bodies have the burden of proving that the public benefit of their discussing any matter privately outweighs the public benefit of their discussing it publicly.

The nurturing of our democracy demands no less.
Richard A. Knee
San Francisco

Check free speech for the greater good

In his Dec. 29 Opinion piece, "Europe must embrace true free speech," Brendan O'Neill argues that two writers facing trials for what they said or wrote should be treated equally as cases of denigrated free speech. I disagree. While I am sympathetic to the argument that free speech is a right that needs to be defended vigorously, I recognize that there are limits to any individual right, and social and cultural context matter greatly.

Here in the US, screaming "Fire!" in a crowded theater, when there is none, is a case of "free speech" that is not allowed. In this case it is clear that one person's right to free speech is subservient to the rights and protection of many others.

I don't know if David Irving's Holocaust-denial speeches in Austria are on the level of screaming "fire," but I do think it is worth considering in the context of Austria's history. Austria gave birth to Adolf Hitler and was quick to link arms with his adopted Germany in a kind of genocidal mania that led to the Holocaust and World War II. Like Mr. Irving, Hitler twisted history freely to serve his ends, and his lies were enormously successful.

In today's Austria, what lie could be bigger than denying the Holocaust? In outlawing Holocaust denial, it seems Austria has recognized a cultural sensitivity and a vulnerability to anti-Semitism that is still alive and could be exploited to great harm again.

In Austria, it may not be reasonable to argue for Irving's right to say whatever he wants to about the Holocaust. For the time being, the Austrian law may indeed be a just and reasonable limitation of free speech. However, were identical laws in place in Irving's Britain, they would be much harder to justify. "What, when, and where" do make a difference. And when it comes to Holocaust denial, Austria looks a lot more like a crowded theater than Britain.
Larry K. Fried
Arcata, Calif.

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