Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

June 2, 2008

The Value Of The First Amendment

by Doug Mataconis

The British don’t have a Bill of Rights per se, they don’t even really have a written Constitution, which is why it’s possible for nonsense like this to take place:\

This past week, apparently, two ministers found out first-hand that what the Bishop claimed was true:

The preachers, both ministers in Birmingham, were handing out leaflets on Alum Rock Road in February when they started talking to four Asian youths.

A police community support officer (PCSO) interrupted the conversation and began questioning the ministers about their beliefs.

They said when the officer realised they were American, although both have lived in Britain for many years, he launched a tirade against President Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Cunningham said: “I told him that this had nothing to do with the gospel we were preaching but he became very aggressive.

“He said we were in a Muslim area and were not allowed to spread our Christian message. He said we were committing a hate crime by telling the youths to leave Islam and said that he was going to take us to the police station.”

The preacher refused to give the PCSO his address because he felt the officer’s manner was “threatening and intimidating”.

The ministers claim he also advised them not to return to the area. As he walked away, the PCSO said: “You have been warned. If you come back here and get beaten up, well you have been warned”.

Left unanswered, of course, is why the police wouldn’t go their job to protect the preachers if they were, by chance, beaten up by thugs for committing the apparently unpardonable crime of proselytizing in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. Instead, it’s just easier to stop the speech and let the thugs have there way.

Of course, having a written Constitution and an explicit protection of freedom of speech doesn’t always help either. Just ask our neighbors to the North:

Representatives of B.C. Muslims are seeking a ruling from the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal over a 2006 Maclean’s magazine article they say discriminated against them and exposed the community to hatred and contempt.

The complaint was filed jointly by Canadian Islamic Congress president Mohamed Elmasry of Ottawa and Abbotsford cardiologist Dr. Naiyer Habib, a B.C. director of the congress.

At issue is an Oct. 23, 2006, article that suggested Muslim demographics will soon enable them to overrun countries in Europe and North America.

Apparently, in Canada, as in Britain, the “right” not to be offended, even by the truth, trumps free speech every time.

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  • http://publiusendures.blogspot.com Mark

    Doug:
    I don’t know if you had to read this case in law school as I did, but I recall a decision by one of the high courts in Britain holding that the burning of any flag could be construed as an offense at common law (I can’t recall if it amounted to a criminal offense or just a civil penalty, and it’s possible my memory is just wrong entirely). The point is: this largely demonstrates that Hamilton’s argument against the Bill of Rights was horribly, horribly wrong. That said, I think the drafters of the Bill of Rights made something of a mistake by placing the First Amendment where they did, while relegating the 9th and 10th Amendments to their respective positions. I suspect that it would be much more psychologically difficult to ignore those amendments if they were placed first and second.

  • Mark

    I detect a nasty anti-British tone in this article and some ignorance too. Britain does have a Bill of Rights, passed in 1689 it was the first of its kind in the world. We don’t have a written constitution but we have a tradition of free speeech and have laws (The Human Rights Act) that enshrine the principle of religious freedom. The two preachers will be using those laws in the claims against the the Police. Just because we have a different system of governance to the USA doesn’t mean that we don’t have rights, please respect and understand the differnce.

  • Mark

    Flag burning is not illegal in Britain.

  • http://publiusendures.blogspot.com Mark (from PE)

    Dammit! I hate when people with my name disagree with me in the comment after mine- it makes me look schizophrenic!
    Anyways, I did some quick research, and the case I was thinking of was Percy v. DPP, which found that the desecration of an American flag during a protest in the UK was a violation of the public order act. While I still would disagree with that conclusion, it is somewhat different from a conclusion based on another person’s right not to be offended.

    I might add that the 1689 Bill of Rights, while a landmark in the history of liberalism, did not contain an absolute guarantee of free speech. It did provide a guarantee of the right to petition the government and of a right to free speech in Parliament, but not of free speech more generally. That said, and in defense of British law, the concept of free speech is certainly enshrined in British common law, and in a way that is far, far superior to most civil law countries (like France and Germany, for instance). Not to say that free speech doesn’t exist in those countries, just that the protections for free speech aren’t as strong as they are in other Western countries.
    Of course, in the Bush era, constitutional guarantees of free speech mean a lot less than they used to (thanks to things like the abusive use of no-fly lists, amongst other things).

  • Justin Bowen

    Well, Canada has a history of doing this kind of stuff: http://www.swc-cfc.gc.ca/pubs/pubspr/0662882857/200303_0662882857_e.pdf

    If you go down to page 92 and read the recommendations, you’ll see their (Status of Women, Canadian government department) attempt to shut down the men’s rights movement in Canada (and presumably around the world). Now some people might say, after reading the suggestions, that they’re just trying to protect women. However, like their comrades to the south of the border, the Canadian feminists have a history of being anything but unbiased and hate-free. Canada, with its reputation as being a radical-feminist’s dream, would be less so if men’s rights activists were able to penetrate the government and push for fair legislation.

  • Mark

    It’s worth pointing out that this is only one side of the argument, it is a complaint against the police by the two preachers. Nothing so far has been established about the veracity of that complaint.

  • http://bluntobject.wordpress.com/ Matt

    It’s worth noting that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” — namely, declares that the rights and freedoms it guarantees are subordinate to government.

    This does not serve to make me more proud of my country.

  • http://www.not-quiteright.net/tvg/ Alex

    Remember this:

    “Protestors Interrupt Senate’s First Hindu-Led Prayer”

    “The invocation – which made history as the first Hindu-led prayer – was led by Rajan Zed, a Hindu chaplain from Nevada, but was interrupted by two women and one man from the group Operation Save America/Operation Rescue.

    The three protestors, later identified as Ante and Katherine Pavkovic and their daughter Kristen, felt that the prayer was against the wishes of the fore founders of America since the prayer would be addressed to a non-monotheistic god.

    “Lord Jesus, forgive us, Father, for allowing the prayer of the wicked, which is an abomination in your sight,” shouted Ante Pavkovic at the morning start. “You shall have no other gods before you. … ”

    It would appear that we have a lot of “Free Speech” issues here as well.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    Alex,

    What Free Speech issues ?

    The Pavkovic’s may be intolerant bigots, but even intolerant bigots have a right to speak out, which is what they did.

  • http://www.not-quiteright.net/tvg/ Alex

    The clear intent was to prevent the prayer from being heard, and the person offering the prayer from doing so. You don’t agree?

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    Alex,

    It is not a violation of freedom of speech for private citizens to protest someone else’s speech.

    They may be bigoted, but they are entitled to their opinion.

  • UCrawford

    Alex,

    The First Amendment is designed to keep the government from repressing your right to free speech…it doesn’t obligate other private citizens to listen to you or respect what you have to say.

  • http://www.not-quiteright.net/tvg/ Alex

    I always hear people argue that, and it’s accurate. However, those arguing as such often belie this very argument when they insist that school officials refuse to allow homosexual groups equal access in public schools, for example.

    Quote:

    “…in Canada, as in Britain, the “right” not to be offended, even by the truth, trumps free speech every time.”

    I am from Utah, and you could replace ‘Canada’ with ‘Utah’ and the substance of your statement is the same. Groups have in fact petitioned the school districts to a) allow Christian groups within the public schools (which they have) and b) disallow ‘gay rights’ groups access (which many districts have too).

    As you are libertarians, however, you would not agree with refusing access to ‘gay rights’ groups.

    I enjoy your site!

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org Doug Mataconis

    Alex,

    I don’t know how else to explain this except to say that when a government agency bars speech it’s a 1st Amendment issue. When a private person or organization does so, it’s not.

    And there is a difference between citizens petitioning the government to ban a group from a school (which is protected by the 1st Amendment’s protection of the right to petition the government) and the government banning speech based on content (which is barred by the 1st Amendment).

    It’s really just that simple.

  • http://www.not-quiteright.net/tvg/ Alex

    Right, but those “citizens petitioning the government to ban a group from a school” want the government, which it has, to ban protected speech from the public sphere.

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