To Our American Cousins Judges Interfering with Freedom of Speech Is Simply Unthinkable. It Is High Time We Learnt from Them

Daily Mail (London), May 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

To Our American Cousins Judges Interfering with Freedom of Speech Is Simply Unthinkable. It Is High Time We Learnt from Them


Byline: by Dominic Sandbrook

AMID all the fuss about Ryan Giggs's injunction, one country above all has gazed with disbelief on events in Britain. For our American cousins, the British roots of their legal freedoms are a source of intense pride.

In the National Archives in Washington DC hangs a copy of the Magna Carta, a reminder that the liberty Americans hold so dear was derived from their English forefathers.

But in the past few days, many Americans have been unable to contain their shock that Britain's courts might try to gag the people's representatives.

Across the Atlantic, the very idea that the Supreme Court could shut down debate on the floor of the United States Congress is utter anathema.

Yet this is precisely the situation that confronts our nation's politicians.

Through the insidious advance of injunctions and the country's most senior judge attacking politicians who use parliamentary privilege to deliberately reveal the content of privacy cases covered by injunctions, the freedoms for which our ancestors fought and died are steadily being eroded What a contrast, you might think, with the position across the ocean, in the self-styled Land of the Free.

And yet, in our historical ignorance, we often forget that the freedoms guaranteed in the American Constitution -- the freedom of speech and freedom of the Press that are so endangered here in Britain -- were born on English soil.

On January 4, 1642, one of the worst kings in our history led a troop of armed men into the chamber of the House of Commons. Exasperated by MPs' criticism, Charles I planned to arrest five opposition members.

But when he ordered the Speaker to point them out, the latter refused. 'May it please your Majesty,' he said. 'I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.' After a long silence, Charles conceded defeat. 'All my birds have flown,' he said, and marched back outside, his men at his heels.

Charles's aim was to crush democratic freedom. And it is only a slight exaggeration to say that today's judges are trying to succeed where he so conspicuously failed.

Obsession Our ancestors fought a bloody civil war to defeat Charles I, and when his son James II tried the same trick, they kicked him out in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

A year later, the Bill of Rights confirmed the liberties for which our forerunners had paid such a heavy price. 'The freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament,' it reads.

For centuries, those freedoms -- the freedom of our representatives to speak freely, without fear of prosecution, and the freedom of the Press to report the news honestly and fairly -- set us apart from our European neighbours.

The fact that our ancestors stood up to Charles I and James II, while their French counterparts grovelled at the boots of Louis XIV, should be one of our proudest boasts as patriotic Britons.

During the long wars against Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany, our soldiers and sailors took courage from the fact that they were fighting for freedom.

And when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took up arms against George III in the American Revolution of 1776, they saw themselves as the heirs to the historic freedoms of the British people.

Inspired by the ideas of great English writers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine, America's Founding Fathers thought they were preserving the best traditions of the Roundhead cause.

And in their written Constitution, they explicitly protected the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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