Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 14 November 2011

Making the case for a British first amendment

Here's a guest post from politics.co.uk correspondent Tony Hudson:

One of the founding principles of the United States is its Bill of Rights. The first ten amendments to the constitution are integral to the very makeup of American law. The first and most important amendment guarantees its citizens the right to the freedom of speech. As a result, nobody in America can be jailed for the words they say.

In this country, things are slightly different. We have libel laws and injunctions. There are ways for British citizens to be criminally charged if something they say, or write, breaks certain rules.

It was this tricky issue being debate with regard to internet blogging this afternoon in parliament. The joint committee on privacy and injunctions had four notable British bloggers giving evidence on the legal minefield that has been created by the blogosphere. During this hearing, the idea was touched upon that a first amendment model would be a good blueprint for use in Britain.

Guido Fawkes editor Paul Staines said, rather flippantly, "that country seems to be doing rather well" when discussing the impact of complete freedom of speech the first amendment has had upon America. In a somewhat slippery jurisdictional manoeuvre Staines has his website hosted in the United States and, as a result, he is protected by American law despite not being an American citizen.

It is a shame that he is able to take advantage of something that is unavailable to most other British bloggers. Of course, if Britain were to adopt an equivalent to the first amendment, this sort of trick would not be necessary.

Richard Wilson, another blogger present at the hearing, also commended the idea of the first amendment. He said that America "protects freedom of speech better" than Britain does. He even went as far as to say that it sometimes "seems like freedom of speech is in trouble in this country".

Wilson argued that transparency was indispensible when defining "the rule of law" and, as such, those who break super-injunctions are more closely following the spirit of law than those imposing them. He proposed "something akin to the first amendment" as a starting off point in the regulation of British media.

Both men made the case that the pursuit of truth is the primary motivating factor for what they do. They both decried injunctions and super-injunctions as barriers to the pursuit of truth and that when there is public interest involved, those barriers should not be so easily and readily available.

The debate will undoubtedly continue but, regardless of what you may think of each individual blogger's politics, there is certainly an interesting and compelling case to be made for the adoption of a British first amendment.

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