When I heard that the WSJ and NYT were turning off their paywalls for the duration of Hurricane Sandy, I felt sure there was something wrong with this, though I found it hard to put in words.
I'm going to try now and see what happens.
When I write something publicly it's because I want to put the ideas out there and get a response. I want the benefit of other minds interacting with the idea. To limit access is opposite the purpose of writing it publicly. So every person who can't read it subtracts some of the value. If that person had a pivotal insight, one that would make me change my mind -- then all the value of publishing it is gone if I never get to hear the response because of a paywall.
One might argue that it's a matter of extent. If the paywall should come down because there's important potentially life-saving information on the site today, then it should come down tomorrow too, if the news organization is any good -- because that's always true. What difference does it make if they could save one life or one thousand? To the person whose life is saved, it makes none.
I have two answers. First, it's a felony to leave the scene of an accident, and it's a felony to blow up a Federal courthouse in Oklahoma City. Scale has nothing to do with it. If this isn't a crime against humanity, who is it a crime against? Do we hold our politicians accountable for their actions, especially if they're on a global scale? Are just US citizens offended by their attempt to shut down free speech on the Internet? No. The mail has been coming in from all over the planet. And rightly so. This act has global implications.
Writers and publishers have different motivations and missions. A writer's job is to spread ideas far and wide and reap the benefit. That's his art. A publisher's mission is, well I don't understand that one -- because I am a writer. :-)