Early Cold War legislation that still serves as the legal foundation for U.S. public diplomacy prohibits the Voice of America from disseminating information within the United States. This essay, by a Foreign Service public diplomacy specialist, argues that this provision should be eliminated. – Ed.
Smith-Mundt: Censorship American Style?
Thanks to the gift of a shortwave radio, I grew up listening to the Voice of America (VOA). Just like tens of millions of listeners around the world, I knew the VOA program schedule just as well as my friends knew the network TV lineup. Just like tens of millions of listeners in the former Soviet Union, I set my watch to VOA jazz master Willis Conover’s nightly broadcasts that made him a hero there while he remained unknown in his own country. I can safely say that my radio, and especially the VOA, set me on a course that led to a career as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer dealing with public diplomacy.
Little did that boy in Lakeland, Florida, know that what he was doing was illegal. My clandestine behavior put me in the same category as so many people behind the Iron Curtain who shared my enthusiasm for the Voice of America. Under still existing U.S. federal law, I was a subversive, complicit in the illegal broadcasts of the Voice of America within the United States. Listening to other international radio stations was OK, even if they were communist. Thanks to a transmitter in Cuba, I could pick up the not-quite-perfect American accents of Radio Moscow. Radio Havana came in loud and clear in English and Spanish. And on good nights, static-filled broadcasts came in from Britain, Canada, Spain, Egypt, and the Vatican. Yet, VOA had the programming that kept calling me back. In the eyes of my own government, I had fallen victim to hard-core American propaganda.
A provision of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 prohibits the Voice of America and all other organs of public diplomacy from disseminating within the United States material intended for foreign publics. What motivated Congress was distrust of the loyalty of the State Department; by banning domestic dissemination, Congress could block State from “propagandizing” the American people. Yet, enforcing the act literally was always fanciful; I got such a clear VOA signal because a powerful transmitter in North Carolina broadcast to Latin America – right through Florida. Later on, the Internet would make the provision irrelevant. VOA transcripts now are available to the world at www.voanews.com, though Smith-Mundt still prohibits Americans from downloading the material without a waiver from Congress. Fortunately, there are no Smith-Mundt police lurking outside the door since the law lacks any enforcement provisions.
Despite this glaring flaw, Smith-Mundt as a whole is the vital legal foundation for all U.S. public diplomacy. Questioning the law inevitably means questioning the nature of American public diplomacy. Understanding this, blogger Matt Armstrong (www.mountainrunner.us) organized a conference on January 13 to debate the merits of Smith-Mundt. Panelists included retired officials from the former U.S. Information Agency (USIA), academics, military officers, and one prominent journalist. Most agreed that the law should be tweaked, but there’s not a compelling justification to replace it entirely. Some argued forcefully that communicating with overseas publics requires a different set of programs and expertise than is the case for an American audience. Therefore, we have both www.america.gov for the international public and www.state.gov for Americans. They are equally available online anywhere.
As I sat through the conference, I kept thinking back to my boyhood clandestine listening. Why on earth would Uncle Sam want to keep something from his own citizens but share it with the rest of the world? There may not be any Smith-Mundt police, and the controversial provision in the law may be irrelevant, but it’s still on the books. For all the talk about the need for a more effective public diplomacy or strategic communication, we’re shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot by preaching freedom of the press overseas while practicing censorship at home. Even in the most democratic of societies, all it takes is one aggressive prosecutor to manipulate an otherwise forgotten or irrelevant statute and go after those potential dissidents listening to VOA or reading its webpage. Maybe the idea of the Smith-Mundt police isn’t so fanciful.
Nevertheless, don’t repeal Smith-Mundt. It creates a statutory firewall between resources intended for foreign audiences and those used domestically. Tear down that firewall, and it will be a matter of time before resources and personnel who focus on talking about America overseas are diverted in favor of domestic “public affairs,” the short-term political imperative of any administration. In other words, given the choice about writing about jazz for a world hungry to know about America’s unique art form, or a presidential news conference, guess which will win? Smith-Mundt protects us from that false choice.
There’s a simple solution: tweak Smith-Mundt by getting rid of the one provision banning domestic dissemination. In this age of communication without borders, the existence of such statutory language only subverts America’s most powerful tool of soft power: our ideals.