A piece in today’s Times:
Eight years after Britain recognised the United States of America as an independent nation, the First Amendment enshrined constitutional rights to freedom of speech, a free press and freedom of religion.
Today, however, some 238 years after his ancestor George III lost the colonies in the War of Independence, the Duke of Sussex has stirred up old grievances in his adopted country by dismissing the First Amendment as “bonkers”.
Harry, 36, had wisely professed his ignorance of the fine detail of US constitutional law when the subject came up in an appearance on the podcast Armchair Expert, which is about “the messiness of being human”. Less wisely, he waded into the debate anyway.
During a discussion about his life in California, the duke mentioned the media “feeding frenzy” that developed after he moved his family to Los Angeles last year to escape the pressure of life as working royals in the UK.
Before the Duke and Duchess of Sussex bought a discreet $14.65 million residence 90 miles up the coast in Montecito, they and their son Archie lived in a Beverly Hills mansion lent to them by the film producer and actor Tyler Perry. There they felt hounded by the paparazzi once again.
“I don’t want to start going down the First Amendment route because that’s a huge subject and one which I don’t understand because I’ve only been here a short time,” the duke said. “But you can find a loophole in anything.”
Later he told the hosts Dax Shepard, an actor, and Monica Padman, a producer: “I’ve got so much I want to say about the First Amendment as I sort of understand it, but it is bonkers.”
The interview was released last week but the duke’s comments about the US constitution were initially overshadowed by other remarks in which he implied that his father and the Queen had both failed as parents and compared his own life to The Truman Show, a film about a man trapped inside a reality television programme.
However, the duke’s thoughts on the First Amendment have now attained their own separate notoriety, especially among conservative commentators with an appetite for controversy.
Meghan McCain, co-host of The View and daughter of the late Republican senator John McCain, tweeted a riposte to Harry, informing him: “We fought a war in 1776 so we don’t have to care what you say or think. That being said, you have chosen to seek refuge from your homeland here and thrive because all of what our country has to offer and one of the biggest things is the First Amendment — show some utter respect.”
Dan Crenshaw, a Republican Congressman from Texas who wears an eye patch because he lost his right eye in a bomb blast while serving as a navy Seal in Afghanistan, tweeted a link to a news story about the duke’s comments and added: “Well I just doubled the size of my Independence Day party.”
Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News and NBC host, wrote: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.’ (Lincoln or Twain or someone smarter than Prince Harry.)”
Nigel Farage, the former UK Independence Party leader and staunch monarchist, offered a transatlantic perspective: “For Prince Harry to condemn the USA’s First Amendment shows he has lost the plot,” he tweeted. “Soon he will not be wanted on either side of the pond.”
Farage is apparently particularly attuned to fears among conservative Americans that their constitutional moorings are loosening: he is travelling the United States as the headline speaker on “America’s Comeback Tour”, which has a stated goal of “energising grassroots activists to begin to restore America’s founding principles and institutions”.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have complained extensively about press intrusion in Britain and have fought to defend their privacy through multiple lawsuits in British courts.
However, British libel laws are considered tougher on publishers than defamation laws in the US, where there is protection for claims made about public figures. Under British law freedom of expression is also balanced against other competing considerations such as the right to privacy under the Human Rights Act.
In the US the First Amendment prohibits any laws “abridging” the freedom “of the press”, although the Supreme Court has identified certain limitations to how that is interpreted.
What is the First Amendment?
The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791, along with nine other amendments to the constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, a document protecting civil liberties under US law.
The Bill of Rights was drafted as a concession to state politicians who had threatened to block ratification of the constitution itself because they feared that it concentrated too much power in the hands of the federal government.
The First Amendment states that 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.”
Though the subject of much debate, this is broadly interpreted to mean that, with certain specific exceptions such as defamation, hate speech and obscenity, Americans can say what they want without fear of censorship and protest without fear of repression.
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