Britain’s Retreat from Free Speech

NEW YORK – The ordeal of David Miranda – the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald detained at London’s Heathrow Airport, interrogated for nine hours, and forced to surrender his electronic devices (some of which allegedly contained documents leaked to Greenwald by the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden)– is a shocking demonstration of the changed climate surrounding the press. So is the fact that state officials threatened Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with criminal charges and forced Guardian employees to destroy computer equipment at the newspaper’s offices. But what is most shocking is that all of this happened in the United Kingdom.

As the head of the government that carried out these acts, British Prime Minister David Cameron has betrayed his country’s most noble cultural legacy. Indeed, Britain essentially invented and gave the rest of the world the idea of free speech.

As far back as the seventeenth century, whenever monarchs or parliamentarians would try to control Britain’s press, British pamphleteers and polemicists would fight back – and often win. In the face of anti-monarchist revolutionary fervor, Parliament – as Cameron should recall – passed the Licensing Order of 1643, which imposed pre-publication censorship on the British press. Booksellers protested, and the following year John Milton published “Areopagitica,” a foundational statement of our modern philosophy of the right to free expression. Returning to British first principles, the House of Commons rescinded legislation suppressing press freedom in 1776.

After that return to sanity, it was hard to convict someone for political speech or writing in Britain. No law specifically censored political speech, leaving only the much higher legal threshold of “disturbing the King’s peace.” Despite a flood of Jacobin propaganda from revolutionary France, British parliamentarians remained committed to the idea that freedom of speech and the exposure of ideas to open debate would serve Britain best. Efforts in 1823 and 1856 to pass laws constraining free speech were shouted down by members of Parliament using very modern-sounding objections: any curtailment of press freedom constituted a “slippery slope,” while one man’s sedition or blasphemy was another man’s common-sense opinion.