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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

U.S. Public Diplomacy: Legislative Proposals to Amend Prohibitions on Disseminating Materials to Domestic Audiences

Matthew C. Weed
Analyst in Foreign Policy Legislation

Public diplomacy involves U.S. government activities to conduct U.S. foreign policy and promote U.S. national interests through direct outreach and communication with the population of foreign countries. Public diplomacy and international broadcasting activities, conducted by the Department of State, U.S. diplomatic personnel abroad, and U.S. international broadcasters such as the Voice of America, include providing information to foreign publics through broadcast and Internet media and at libraries and other outreach facilities in foreign countries; conducting cultural diplomacy, such as art exhibits and music performances; and administering international educational and professional exchange programs.

For decades, Congress has enacted legislative provisions concerning U.S. government communications to U.S. domestic audiences that prohibit influencing public opinion through unauthorized publicity or propaganda. In the case of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, two additional legislative provisions prohibit the dissemination and general availability of communications and related materials intended for foreign publics to U.S. domestic audiences: Section 501 of the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (“Smith-Mundt Act”; P.L. 80-402, 22 U.S.C. §1461) as well as Section 208 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1986 and 1987 (“Zorinsky Amendment”; P.L. 99-93; 22 U.S.C. §1461-1a).

Proposed in the 112th Congress, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (H.R. 5736), and identical provisions included at Section 1097 of the National Defense Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2013 (NDAA; H.R. 4310), would amend and restate these two legislative provisions restricting domestic availability and dissemination of communications created by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to target and influence foreign publics. The proposed amendments to these provisions would remove the prohibition on domestic dissemination of public diplomacy information produced by the Department of State and the BBG intended for foreign audiences, while maintaining the prohibition on using public diplomacy funds to influence U.S. public opinion.

Proponents of amending these two sections argue that the ban on domestic dissemination of public diplomacy information is impractical given the global reach of modern communications, especially the Internet, and that it unnecessarily prevents valid U.S. government communications with foreign publics due to U.S. officials’ fear of violating the ban. They assert as well that lifting the ban will promote the transparency in the United States of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting activities conducted abroad. Critics of lifting the ban state that it may open the door to more aggressive U.S. government activities to persuade U.S. citizens to support government policies, and might also divert the focus of State Department and the BBG communications from foreign publics, reducing their effectiveness.

For further discussion of the Smith-Mundt Act’s domestic dissemination ban as well as general information on U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, see CRS Report R40989, U.S. Public Diplomacy: Background and Current Issues, by Kennon H. Nakamura and Matthew C. Weed. For explanation of legislative restrictions on U.S. government communications to domestic audiences, see CRS Report RL32750, Public Relations and Propaganda: Restrictions on Executive Agency Activities, by Kevin R. Kosar. For a discussion of the NDAA, see CRS Report R42607, Defense: FY2013 Authorization and Appropriations, by Pat Towell and Daniel H. Else.

Date of Report: September 21, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42754
Price: $29.95

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