Ironically, freedom of speech is a fundamental right designed to protect us from the tyranny of Prince Harry’s own ancestors. A tyranny that apparently still exists today. Consider the example of journalist James Callender from the Founder’s era, and Facebook blocking the dissenting views of a respected scientist and former Obama official from our own.
“I’ve got so much I want to say about the First Amendment as I sort of understand it, but it is bonkers,” Prince Harry declared, without evidence as they say. “I don’t want to start going down the First Amendment route because that’s a huge subject and one which I don’t understand because I’ve only been here a short time. But, you can find a loophole in anything. You can capitalize or exploit what’s not said rather than uphold what is said. I believe we live in an age now where you’ve got certain elements of the media redefining to us what privacy means. There’s a massive conflict of interest.”
In reality, what’s truly “bonkers” is that a privileged man growing up in the Western world, enjoying every possible benefit of our freedoms and rights, is unaware of the importance, significance, and necessity of the First Amendment. I understand that Prince Harry is British, but the values enshrined in the Bill of Rights are universal, beginning with the Declaration of Independence itself, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and all that.
It’s doubly amazing when you consider the First Amendment is written in plain English and runs for just a few sentences. What does this “bonkers” clause actually say? Here’s it in its entirety: “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.”
Are we to honestly believe that this is a “huge subject” filled with “loopholes” that nefarious people can easily “capitalize” or “exploit”? There are many topics in jurisprudence and Constitutional law that are opaque to the average person, but the First Amendment isn’t one of them. Rather, it means exactly what it says, nor is it remotely confusing or contradictory: Simply put, the Founders recognized the obvious fact that no one has a monopoly on the truth, therefore the government cannot be allowed to force its will on the people either through religion, public or private speech, limitations on the press and media, or limiting the people’s ability to gather and collectively make their voices heard.
Moreover, the Founders lived in an age ripe with both disinformation and conflicts of interest. They were well aware that what was printed in the popular newspapers at the time and what was said in the streets was often false. They knew this very well because they often funded and lied about it themselves, publishing stories under fake names and paying journalists to write stories for their own benefit. The idea of an objective media seeking the truth didn’t even exist.
We can consider the story of James Callendar, a “leading journalist” in the early days of the United States. Callendar was born in Scotland and started his career in Britain. When the British publication, The Political Progress of Britain was outlawed in 1793, he fled to America and began a career as a notorious muckraker. He attacked the Constitution as undemocratic (sound familiar?) and railed against even George Washington, calling him “debauched” and claiming he deceived the public. A rabid partisan, Callender loathed John Adams and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party.
Thomas Jefferson found him to be a useful tool, setting him up at an aligned paper, The Aurora and funding him in secret for several years. He was the journalist that broke the story of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds, though he claimed Hamilton had benefited financially and used his office improperly, in other words he spread disinformation. This was, in fact, controversial at the time. Congress ultimately passed the Sedition Act, banning “false, scandalous, or malicious” writing against the government on a 44 to 41 vote.
The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, opposed the act, asking, “What will be the situation of the people? Not free: because they will be compelled to make their election between competitors whose pretensions they are not permitted by act equally to examine, to discuss and to ascertain.” Callender was one of the few people actually jailed under the Sedition Act, serving 9 months in prison and paying a $200 fine, but the act was so unpopular the proponents were wiped out in the next election, putting Thomas Jefferson in office
Callender got out of jail shortly after, but by that point Jefferson found him to be too radical, saying “I am really mortified at the base ingratitude of Callender. It presents human nature in a hideous form.” Callender promptly changed sides and became a Federalist, a thorn in Jefferson’s side who ultimately outed his affair with the slave, Sally Hemings, and their children together.
This was the reality of journalism in the Founding Era: Partisan lies, muckraking, scandals whether true or false, and sensationalism. The Founders didn’t like it, except of course when it was for their cause, but after a closely divided stumble with the Sedition Act, they correctly recognized that the alternative, however, was far worse. They knew this because they lived through it: Government sanctioned speech, press, and religion, along with everything else. Before and after the revolution, the British Crown, as in Prince Harry’s ancestors, licensed just about anything and everything, including newspapers, meaning you could not print so much as a pamphlet without approval from the powers that be. I assure you those powers, much like the elite class of today, didn’t allow for opposing points of view.
Incredibly, an Englishman, Sir William Blackstone, living in London at the time of the Revolution, understood this as well. He wrote, “To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the Revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion and government.” Sir Blackstone was actually commenting on the Laws of England and had never set foot in America, meaning some dude who lived well over 200 years ago in Harry’s native land was more keenly aware of the reasoning than him.
Further, the necessity of a licence with royal approval wasn’t limited to newspapers. Britain operated under a stifling system of royal licenses and guilds, where approval from the crown was required for everything from carpentry to smithing, opening a store to raising horses. This was coupled with an arbitrary application of rights: The British Army could commandeer your house, imprison you without trial, and more.
Once again, the Founders were keenly aware of this, especially as they lived in an age of rapid advancements and discovery. In their time, Sir Isaac Newton had revolutionized science and physics, John Locke politics and government, and Adam Smith economics. They saw first hand how these new ideas were suppressed by the government to the diminishment of civilization, and they understood that the free exchange of ideas was essential to progress.
Consider an example from today. Global warming is now “settled science” and the new information overlords on Facebook police content for conformance with the dogma, but just a few decades ago Global Cooling was all the rage. Recently, a leading physicist and former Obama administration Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, Steven Koonin, wrote a book about climate change, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t and Why It Matters. In the book, he acknowledges the existence of global warming, but questions certain aspects of the science and the application. As The Wall Street Journal describes it, “The heart of the science debate, however, isn’t about whether the globe is warmer or whether humanity contributed. The important questions are about the magnitude of civilization’s contribution and the speed of changes; and, derivatively, about the urgency and scale of governmental response. Mr. Koonin thinks most readers will be surprised at what the data show. I dare say they will.”
This shouldn’t be considered a radical position: There is always disagreement about the urgency and scale of a government’s response to anything and everything. This is the way it was in the Founder’s day and the way it will be until the end of time. Facebook’s fact checkers didn’t see it that way, however. The conservative site Townhall covered the book and The Wall Street Journal’s reaction to it. Their posts promoting their coverage were promptly labelled, party false, and anyone attempting to share the post was prompted to reconsider.
When Townhall appealed the decision, the Facebook fact checking group, Science Feedback, informed them, “The Townhall article repeats several misleading and false claims regarding climate change that appear in Steven Koonin’s book ‘Unsettled.’ The Townhall article doesn’t provide any indication or additional context to readers that explains these claims are inconsistent with the current scientific evidence.” As Katie Pavlich, writing for Townhall noted, “Nowhere in the article did we endorse or give credence to the claims made in ‘Unsettled,’ we simply reported on what Koonin had written. We, like many others, found it newsworthy that Koonin, a former senior government official and nationally known scientist, has a different perspective on climate change, one outside the main narrative regularly held up in government and media.”
Once again, this shouldn’t be considered a radical position. The circular nature of the logic employed is also noteworthy: The fact check is based on consistency with the “current scientific evidence,” therefore pointing out any inconsistencies in it is therefore false by definition, whether or not there are, indeed, inconsistencies. However, as I mentioned earlier, scientists in the 1970s and 1980s were concerned human activity was causing global cooling and another ice age was imminent. Would a Facebook of that era censor content related to Global Warming itself, now settled science? How’s that for irony?
Of course, this is exactly why the Founders enshrined free speech in the Bill of Rights, but don’t tell Prince Harry. He’s only been here a short time and can’t be expected to understand that he’s not always right, nor does he have a monopoly on the truth. Of course, he also seems to think he can do or say whatever he wants about everything including spreading disinformation about his own family in public, so the real way to read this is: Free speech for him, but not for everyone else. That’s another irony for you.
PS I understand that many readers might claim that free speech only applies to government actions. Technically that’s true, but in my opinion it’s a poor right with so narrow an application: The spirit of the freedom counts as much for our culture regardless of the particulars of the law. I am quite confident the Founder’s would agree that a Facebook censor is just as wrong as a government censor.