In 1735, journalist and publisher John Peter Zenger was acquitted of libel by a New York jury. His attorney successfully argued that truth should be an absolute defense to a charge of libel – a novel legal theory at the time. Not only did the jury agree, but that notion became part of common-law in the colonies, then in the United States, and still exists today.
Americans, recent tendencies aside, have by and large strongly favored free speech. Many Americans incorrectly believe this legal and cultural tradition is shared in countries we are most like in culture/history/law, such as Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Those countries aren’t Cuba, but the freedom to speak and publish does not ring anywhere else as true as it does in the U.S.A. Perhaps Tommy Robinson’s case hits so hard on these shores because we value free speech and expression more than anywhere else on earth.
Tommy Robinson was given a three-month sentence last year for filming inside Canterbury Crown Court. It was suspended on the condition that he not commit additional offenses. He will now serve those months along with a new 10-month sentence for contempt of court. The contempt was his reporting (via Facebook Livestream) of a Muslim serial gang rape “grooming” trial at Leeds Crown Court. Robinson broadcast outside the courthouse for over an hour, speaking to the accused and others until he was arrested.
His arrest was to protect the rights of the accused, to see they have a fair trial. The judge in his earlier case Heather Norton said:
“[T]this is not about free speech, not about the freedom of the press, nor about legitimate journalism, and not about political correctness. It is about justice and ensuring that a trial can be carried out justly and fairly, it’s about being innocent until proven guilty. It is about preserving the integrity of the jury to continue without people being intimidated or being affected by irresponsible and inaccurate ‘reporting’ if that’s what it was.”
Truth is not a defense to libel in the U.K. because free speech is not as highly valued there. In the United States, perhaps the jury would have been sequestered, or the trial moved. The media would not be muzzled, however, and that makes all the difference. As we have covered, free speech simply is not honored in the U.K., and what little freedom of expression they have is waning. That’s all the more reason to double down in defense of it everywhere.