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FIRST-PERSON: An egregious trespass

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–The Bill of Rights was introduced as a protection — a bulwark, if you will — against government encroachment on certain rights America’s founders believed were fundamental.

The very first amendment articulated in the Bill of Rights was, and is, designed to guarantee the government would not interfere with a United States citizen’s ability to worship, communicate unhindered, assemble freely and express dissent over government action.

While every single amendment of the Bill of Rights is of equal importance, I believe the First Amendment is perhaps the most fundamental.

Having experienced the tyranny of an oppressive government, the founders wanted to ensure the citizens of their new nation would be free from government interference and intimidation. Free even to take issue with, and criticize, government action.

Throughout America’s history, there have been times when government has shown disdain and disrespect for the Bill of Rights. However, the ideals articulated in the First Amendment are so fundamental, such a part of America’s DNA, that the government was challenged and put in its place on the issue of free speech.

In recent decades, one aspect of the First Amendment — the freedom of speech — has been interpreted to protect all manner of vile and vulgar communication. While this application of the First Amendment might be valid, I am convinced our founders intended the freedom of speech to apply particularly to political speech.

A recent move by the Department of Health and Human Services reveals that, once again, the government is crossing the line concerning freedom of speech.

In early September, a letter was sent out from the Centers of Medicaid Services, a division of DHHS, to at least six major insurance companies. The letter took issue with efforts by the insurance companies to communicate with policy holders concerning possible negative repercussions of proposed health care reform.

The specific problem the Centers of Medicaid Services had concerned Medicare beneficiaries. One line in the insurance companies’ communication that CMS found particularly onerous stated that “millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many of the important benefits and services that make Medicare advantage plans so valuable.”

The CMS letter says the insurance companies “make several other claims about the legislation and how it will be detrimental to enrollees, ultimately urging enrollees to contact their congressional representatives to protest the actions referenced in the letter.”

“CMS is concerned,” the letter continues, “that, among other things, this information is misleading and confusing….” The CMS letter then directs: “We are instructing you to end immediately all such mailings to beneficiaries and to remove all related materials directed to Medicare enrollees from your website.”

The communication under the auspices of the DHHS calling for the insurance companies to cease communication is a direct assault on freedom of speech. It is government trying to curtail a citizen’s right to communicate concerning government action.

While the Centers of Medicaid Services believes the information in the letters is misleading, that argument is absolutely irrelevant to the issue of freedom of speech. Just because the government believes or contends that speech is confusing, misleading or even false does not give it the power to muzzle said speech.

The old adage states that while I may disagree with and even abhor what you say, because of the fundamental right to freedom of speech, I will defend your right to say it.

An examination of CMS’ objections reveals that it is the government that is confused. Not only concerning the health care debate but also on the parameters of freedom of speech.

First of all, there is a tremendous amount of confusion over proposed health care reform because there are at least three different legislative proposals floating around. Any confusion in the health care debate is not on the part of insurance companies but lies squarely with Congress and the Obama administration.

Second, the insurance letter states that benefits to seniors “could” lose benefits. It did not state that seniors “would” lose benefits, only that is was a possibility. From what I understand, under certain proposals being considered, that is an accurate statement.

Third, the insurance companies only encourage policy holders to contact their legislators to express concern. What a concept: encouraging people to participate in the legislative process!

If the government believes insurance companies are misleading people, then say so. However, do not try to intimidate them into silence with a cease and desist order.

The insurance companies in question are not urging armed revolt against the government. They are not encouraging sedition. How dare insurance companies encourage citizens to make their voices known on legislation that will affect their futures?

I am no big fan of insurance companies. I am, however, a huge proponent of free speech, because it is the main defense citizens have against government overreach. This attempt by government to muzzle the insurance companies is an egregious trespass on the First Amendment.

“Rome did not fall because her armies weakened, but because Romans forgot what being Roman meant,” wrote author Salman Rushdie in his book “Fury.”

If Americans ever forget the fundamental freedoms that make us who we are, it is only a matter of time before America — the America intended by our founders — will cease to exist. Among those fundamental freedoms is the freedom to speak out boldly against our government.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs