The cherished First Amendment of the US Constitution - that of free speech and reportage - is often invoked to safeguard such sacred rights as the freedom to advertise harmful products.

This week Congressman Peter King, Republican chairman of the House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee, irked at the use of free speech in an uncommercial context, is demanding that the US attorney general prosecute "the reporters and the editors and the publisher" of the New York Times.

Their crime? To publish details of a covert government scheme to monitor the financial transactions of thousands of Americans. According to the Times, the CIA and US treasury officials have vetted millions of international transactions involving Swift, a Brussels-based component of the global banking system.

Editor Bill Keller acknowledged when the details were published that the White House had pressured the newspaper not to reveal the program's existence. Despite the armlock, Keller stuck to his guns, arguing that "the administration's extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest".

Opined King, who represents New York State: "We're at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous." The newspaper, he averred, was "more concerned about a leftwing elitist agenda than . . . about the security of the American people".

The congressman may have forgotten the words of US appellate judge Dolores K Sloviter, who in 2004 ruled: "The rights embodied in the Constitution, most particularly in the First Amendment, protect the minority - those persons who march to their own drummers."

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff