Prince Harry has managed once again to stir up American media, this time for calling the First Amendment “bonkers” on a podcast with actor Dax Shepard. For once, media outlets on both the right and the left seem united in their howling at Harry for daring to disrespect freedom of the press.
Despite mostly ignoring that he and his host had been discussing the constant hounding by the news media that celebrities in America face and even, in many cases, quoting his words out of order, the copious coverage does reveal an issue common to many who speak out against the First Amendment: Harry doesn’t really understand it. Why? Because there is no real freedom of speech where he’s from. As a member of royalty, Harry would have been restricted by tradition in what he might say for the sake of preserving the image of the family, but a random Brit might go to prison for saying certain things. And if he did slip up and give the media something worth running, the government can always suppress the story.
Not so on this side of the pond. As “bonkers” as entertainment news and social media may be, that’s the price of freedom. A culture shock, perhaps, but one he had best get used to.
Made in America
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
“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.”
This is explicitly a restriction on government power. “Congress shall make no law” that violates the right to worship as one pleases – or not at all – or to freely express one’s opinions and beliefs. It protects the right of the people to gather and to hold the government accountable. It preserves the right of the Fourth Estate to harass celebrities, unfortunately, but that ugly side effect is a necessary evil if one wants a press free to expose corruption and keep the people informed.
The focus is on restricting the government, not the people. While many Americans take it for granted, that is the most important point of the Bill of Rights: that individual liberty trumps the authority of the government.
Kneel Before the Crown
The power of the monarchy has often limited the right of the people or the press to do any of the things enumerated in the First Amendment. While the British royals no longer run the kingdom, the idea that the people should be free, but only if they don’t cross the government, has passed on along with the power of governance.
When an American thinks of a constitution, the U.S. founding document likely comes to mind. The “constitution” of the United Kingdom is less a single, binding document and more a collection of writings stretching back to the Magna Carta of 1215 that led up to proclaiming that whatever a majority of Parliament decides is the ultimate law of the land. The closest thing Brits have to a guarantee of freedom is the Human Rights Act of 1988. Article 10 reads:
“Freedom of expression
- Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
- The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”
The restriction here falls squarely on the individual or enterprise. Protections for religious beliefs aren’t any better. Article 9 reads:
“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
- Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Naturally, Article 11, the “guarantee” of the right to assemble, includes this clause: “This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.”
That’s a far cry from “Congress shall make no law …”
Pick Your Poison
Still think the Brits have the right idea? Ask Tommy Robinson, who went to prison after disobeying a government order not to report on a rape trial. Ask Pastor John Sherwood, who was arrested in London for preaching against homosexuality.
It truly is bonkers that an entire industry exists to gobble up the lives of celebrities and excrete all the juicy details for popular consumption. And Prince Harry is right to say that if we all were better about not clicking on those headlines or sharing hate on social media, the law of supply and demand would sort it out quickly enough. But there comes a time when you must pick your poison – and it seems Harry has. He’s still here, after all.
Read more from James Fite.