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Defending America’s First Amendment

A Commentary By Howard Rich

Monday, June 15, 2009

As limited government advocates fight to preserve individual liberties amid the onrush of President Barack Obama’s “Era of Obscenely Big Government,” one fundamental American freedom that we must be increasingly vigilant in protecting is the freedom of speech.

After all, every imposition of this basic right is a threat against our ability to protect all of the others.

Sadly, under the Washington banner of “campaign finance reform,” Americans have seen their right to free political speech materially impeded upon in recent years. Meanwhile, President Obama’s “Internet security” efforts could be the next politically-correct “buzz-term” for speech suppression.

And speaking of which, let’s not forget the so-called “P.C. police” – i.e. the TV talking head enforcers of our nation’s new lexicon of “P.C.” phraseology, who are always on alert for fresh “violations.”

Yet even as our leaders fail to recognize – and fully protect – free speech amid these evolving encumbrances, those who advocate for virtually every belief under the sun recognize its sanctity.

One reason for free speech’s unwavering public support is the relative inviolability of the First Amendment at all points along our nation’s political spectrum. As the expression goes, we may not like what others have to say, but we will zealously defend their right to say it.

And that’s how it has to be. Otherwise, one of our bedrock national freedoms would be left to the shifting sands of today’s “political discourse,” which is perhaps what many Washington politicians are hoping for.

Recently, though, another threat to Americans’ freedom of speech has emerged – this time from the other side of the ocean.

An egregious pattern of global “venue-shopping” on libel cases is taking shape, with Americans being sued for defamation in British courts – by people who aren’t citizens of either country.

These lawsuits are filed in Great Britain because of the nation’s notoriously backward libel laws, which start with the presumption of guilt against publishers. Making matters worse from an intimidation standpoint, British courts force those publishers who manage to successfully “prove their innocence” to pick up the tab for legal fees.

Neither of these concepts fit even remotely within the American definition of First Amendment jurisprudence– but that’s not stopping British courts from holding Americans liable all the same.

In fact, in a recent case an American author was convicted of libel in a British court and ordered to pay damages to a Saudi Arabian businessman – a ruling which has obviously had a chilling effect on American publishers.

According to this author’s attorneys, British libel law “is being used as a tool to silence critics and endanger (America’s) national security.”

Far from hyperbole, if this trend is allowed to continue we could quickly find ourselves in a situation where terrorists are able to preemptively suppress investigations into their activities simply by filing "defamation" suits in British courts.

Also, any American individual or entity that makes even the most dubious connection to Great Britain could use the English courts as a speech suppression tool for domestic purposes.

Not surprisingly, the real medium of concern here isn’t published books, it’s the Internet.

“The global nature of the (Internet) means that anything published anywhere could quite easily be claimed to lead to damages under UK law,” one web forum recently noted.

That’s a truly frightening prospect – whether you’re editing web copy for CNN or FOX News, writing a blog for Townhall or the Daily Kos , or simply posting an update to your social networking page. Do we really live in an information age where all it takes to wind up on the receiving end of a costly lawsuit is a single Briton accessing our Facebook page?

This is precisely the sort of speech suppression that American libel laws are designed to safeguard us against – but if censors have found a way around those laws, can our freedom of speech truly be called safe?

It can’t – which is why Americans of all political persuasions must demand that their right to free speech be preserved, protected and defended against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

The author is Chairman of Americans for Limited Government .

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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