A Fourth of July thought

by Walter Olson on July 4, 2012

There are a great many reasons to be grateful that the United States declared its independence on this date in 1776, but one reason is that we, unlike Great Britain, managed soon thereafter to secure a First Amendment in our Constitution to protect the freedom of speech. That means we, unlike Lincolnshire pensioner John Richards, are unlikely to be threatened with arrest should we choose to put up a small sign in our window promoting atheism, on the grounds that it might cause distress to passersby [Boston Standard via Popehat] Relatedly, we need not worry that NYU law prof Jeremy Waldron, advocate of “hate speech” bans, will see his views enacted into U.S. policy anytime soon [Erica Goldberg, ConcurOp], despite repeated signals from places like Harvard Law School and the New York Times that he is a Very Serious Person whose views we need to engage.

And while not all the differences between British libel law and ours can be traced to our First Amendment, we are also fortunate that it is a fair bit harder for public figures and organizations here to use defamation charges to ruin critics and authors [Guardian; novelist Amanda Craig, Telegraph] We have likewise been spared the activities of any exact equivalent of Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority, recently reported as banning a “fathers’ rights” ad [BoingBoing]. And so forth.

Enjoy the Fourth, and our freedoms.

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1 Walter Olson 07.04.12 at 8:28 am

Curiously, even Liberty Law Blog has seen fit to run an article by a British academic promoting Waldron’s views and “hate speech” legislation more generally, drawing on the outlier 1952 “group-libel” case of Beauharnais v. Illinois, now widely regarded as implicitly overturned by later Supreme Court jurisprudence.

2 Richard Reinsch 07.04.12 at 12:12 pm

The piece was by David Conway and was a nuanced analysis of the case of Lars Hedegaard in the Denmark Supreme Court. Of course, anyone who reads Liberty Law Blog, its debate section, book reviews, or listens to its podcasts knows that it is not a super-ideologically charged site but one trying to drill down to first principles on an array of issues. Disagreements and discussion are welcome! To that end, thoughtful responses to this particular piece and all pieces on the site are welcome by me the editor.

3 Anonymous Attorney 07.05.12 at 12:28 pm

I wish I could get more excited. The sensitivity/censorship culture in America and Britain is fairly parallel. There are plenty of examples in which it’s just as hard to exercise free speech in America even if you don’t face jail. In our “free” country,

* An atheist who puts up a billboard in Pennsylvania showing that the Bible condoned slavery will be hit with 1) massive protests, 2) media frenzy, 3) heavy pressure on the billboard renter to pull it down — and he may do so 4) vandalism to the sign that isn’t likely to be followed up too vigorously by the police, 5) death threats, 6) job loss.

* A company that declines to make gay pride T-shirts will be hit with a “Human Relations Comission” complaint and have to shell out money for a lawyer even if they eventually prevail.

* A person who advertises a room for rent on a white separatist website will be hit with a “fair housing” complaint and dragged through that process, and the site will be forced to take down the ad. Heavy civil penalties to follow.

* Holocaust doubters seeking to meet in a restaurant may be 1) refused admission by the owners or 2) physically attacked by opponents, and the attackers ignored by federal authorities who would surely pursue with vigor a group of neo-Nazis who attacked a gathering of Holocaust survivors.

* A conservative speaker invited to a college campus is physically attacked, or the college pulls the invitation due to “security concerns”.

* A gathering of white “race realists” seeks to meet in a hotel, but threats are made to the hotel, which cancels the hosting contract, and police do nothing about it. The heckler’s veto, writ large. Oh, and you won’t hear about it in the newspaper.

* An atheist who dresses as “Zombie Muhammad” will be attacked physically, and his attacker set free by a judge who seeks to protect Muslim dignity.

I guess the bottom line is that you have free speech in America, unless you’re an atheist, white separatist, or Ann Coulter at Wesleyan.

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