What's more important: the safety of police officers, firefighters and emergency medical service crew members or the ability for people to listen to their radio communications?

Put it that way, and the answer seems simple. But listening to radio communications may involve important rights, such as free exchange of public information on the Internet and the use of radio receivers.

We've heard from a few readers who like to exchange frequency lists and monitor public safety communications. Some have interpreted the advertising of information security devices (scramblers) as tossing listeners into a category with criminals and terrorists.

They were reacting to an advertisement in last month's issue that pictured a young man viewing a computer display of radio frequencies and that showed a firefighter with a two-way radio. The ad copy suggested that the use of scramblers might improve homeland security.

The advertisement alarmed some scanner hobbyists.

‘In the clear’

Let's make our position plain:

The use of receivers to listen to any radio signal that contains information transmitted “in the clear” (not scrambled or encrypted) should be unrestricted. That was our position before the passage of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and that's our position now. The Act placed more restrictions on receiver use in the United States than a free society should have. It's wrong, but it's the law.

The Communications Act's restriction on the use of information heard by unintended listeners (such as those who monitor public safety communications and who, in an earlier age, could lawfully listen to common carrier transmissions) is sufficient.

Radio users who want to ensure the privacy of their communications should use scrambling or encryption to prevent it from being understood by unintended listeners. That notion not only flows from our support of unrestricted receiver use, it recognizes that possible sanctions do little to deter someone using a receiver to further an unrelated criminal act.

For example, if a bank robber is undeterred by a possible prison sentence of 20 years to life, he won't worry about a possible fine for using a receiver to listen to the bank's security service frequencies.

Here's another thing: No reasonable person would begrudge a public safety agency's use of scrambling or encryption to protect their people during tactical operations.

For example, police officers, firefighters and emergency medical service crew members responding to emergencies involving hostages, snipers, armed assailants and a variety of other volatile circumstances can be well-served by scrambled or encrypted radio communications that cannot be understood by criminals, reporters and the public.

Meanwhile, the public can be well-served when public safety communications involving fires and vehicle collisions can be monitored and reported for the benefit of commuters. Maybe you know of other examples when members of the public have rendered aid as a result of something heard on receivers.

Free speech; no censorship

Now, about advertising in general: Most advertising is protected free speech. We would no more censor an advertiser's message than we would censor a guest editorial or a letter to the editor that takes a position contrary to ours.

And about the particular advertisement in question: A frequency-searching computer user can compromise the security of public safety workers, including firefighters. Such a user might be a stringer for a newsgathering organization, might otherwise pass the information along in such way that it falls into mischievous hands, or might himself be someone with a harmful purpose. A firefighter responding to an emergency is entitled to as much protection as possible. Under some conditions, that protection should extend to communications.

Protecting public safety workers shouldn't involve restrictions on receiver or computer use, but it may well involve scrambling or encryption. The advertisement was placed to sell a product, but it also did a service in reminding public safety agencies that radio transmissions made “in the clear” may, at just the wrong time, be heard by a listener who might misuse what he hears in a way that — intentionally or not — places lives, health or property at risk.