Friday, May 29, 2015

Gene Policinski: After 800 years, does the Magna Carta’s legacy of freedom persist?

  The signing of the Magna Carta was a major step toward the concept of speaking truth to power in the Western world – and was neither a rock band nor has anything to do with volcanoes, both responses the other day from a quick set of man-on-the-street interviews in Washington D.C.

  In fact, the Magna Carta is an 800-year old document setting out certain baronial rights in England in 1215. Granted, at first thought, that occurrence may not necessarily set our collective Colonial toes to tapping. But perhaps it should.

  First, for our uninformed street interviewees: This unprecedented declaration has rocked the Western world for centuries, setting off tremors that still persist in the U.S. Bill of Rights about individual liberties and the concept of speaking truth to power.

  The facts about the Magna Carta are that it was an ephemeral agreement between 25 nobles and King John. The original was in effect only for a short time after the June 15 signing before being voided by Pope Innocent III. It provided measures of protection from illegal imprisonment, a fairer system of justice for at least the elite, set out certain church rights, and defined nobles’ payments and obligations to the Crown. Succeeding charters through the centuries helped establish a legal structure in the United Kingdom.

  But it’s more the “lore” than “law” of the Magna Carta which has stood the test of time. It created the foundation for individual rights in Great Britain; and as an essential statement on such rights, helped inspire the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and this nation’s reverence for the rule of law.

  A renowned British lawyer just a few decades ago declared the Magna Carta “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

  Only four copies of the original document still remain, one of which – courtesy of American financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein, who paid $21.3 million for it – is in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., preserved along with the founding documents of the United States.

  But while the vellum sheets (made from calfskin) of the Magna Carta are preserved, there’s real debate in the world over whether or not the freedoms which have their beginnings in Western society in the charter might well be on the decline.

  Freedom of expression and freedom of religion is under challenge world-wide. Modern despots fear free thought as much as the force of arms, particularly in today’s interconnected world.  And even some who see themselves as anything but despotic defend freedom through the suppression of that which upsets, insults or provokes a class, group, faith or belief structure.

  The former is easy to spot, with the obvious tools of terror, imprisonment and murder. The latter is a more difficult opponent – both to define and to rally against.

  For example, critics of the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators – who appear at funerals of U.S. military members who have been killed in combat, carrying with hateful and vulgar messages about gays, Catholics and others – didn’t push outright censorship in attempts to silence those as hateful and hurtful voices. Rather, the tactic was to use an oblique approach to limit speech or at least chill the speakers.

  In Snyder v. Phelps, the challenge came in a lawsuit claiming the “intentional infliction of emotional distress” by virtue of the exercise of free speech and assembly. The U.S. Supreme Court, in seeing the challenge for what it was, held that the group should neither be punished for finding an effective – if obnoxious – way to be heard, as well as staking out once again that even speech that causes distress must be protected when it concerns matters of public interest.

  In the always-complicated and conflicted area of religious liberty, the challenge that echoes right through from 1215 is to define the line between church and state – and where the state’s interests rest in protecting not just religious freedom “to” but also religious freedom “from.”

  Ironically, the modern-day dispute that most spans the globe is linked to a history that predates even the Magna Carta – the collision between Christianity and Islam, and the specific controversy involving Islam and its tenets forbidding illustrations depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

  A decade ago, the dispute hit the headlines when a Danish newspaper published crude caricatures of the Prophet, subsequently repeated across any number of European news outlets, setting off a literal firestorm of protest in parts of the Muslim world. The original publication purpose was lost, largely, in the desire to publish to prove one could publish – pushing back against laws extant or in the past that banned such “blasphemy” or – in less churlish terms – provided penalties for those who would attack faiths, particularly minority beliefs.

  The ongoing dispute periodically has led to violence through the years, including a massacre on Jan. 7 at the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people died; and most recently, in the U.S. to the thwarted attempt by a pair of armed gunmen to disrupt a deliberately provocative cartoon even in Garland, Texas, that sought to attract new cartoons about Muhammad.

  While many rush to defend freedom of expression following the Hebdo attack, the terrorist attack gave traction to those, including French lawmakers, seeking to expand laws that  criminalize speech that insults an entire social status “laundry list:”  religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation. Just days after the killings, the French government also imposed stronger efforts on surveillance of the public and those whose public statements might invite hate or advance unpopular views – the very definition of a chilling effect, if not censorship.

  Even with the strong protections of the First Amendment, in the aftermath of the Garland, Texas, incident some officials – and some news media – rushed to call for limits on groups like the one that organized the Muhammad cartoon-fest, rather than defending the group’s right to be provocative — even repellent – in the “marketplace of ideas.”

  In the Garland incident, the two gunmen were killed by police before they could kill participants in the event – about as far away from the concept of vigorous debate on public issues envisioned by the nation’s founders, which they saw as necessary to a self-governing republic.

  So, back to the Magna Carta and what started it all: The idea of thoughts and rights independent of the whims and wishes of a King – who ruled both with a sword and the idea of divine authority. Granted, a single voice and singular mind’s point of view will settle matters with less fuss and muss.

  But even a few dozen barons 800 years ago found that limiting system unacceptable and pushed through what we might call the “meadow of ideas,” if not a true marketplace. All these generations later, we still must be vigilant against those who would limit freedom in the name of safety, or muzzle discordant voices in the name of domestic tranquility.

  If we don’t stand at the figurative parapets eight centuries after the Magna Cara was signed in a field in Runnymede, to defend true freedom of expression and religious liberty, we’ll lose them.

  And then, to paraphrase a modern saying about terrorists and freedom:  “King John wins.”

  About the author: Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center.

  This article was published by the Newseum Institute.

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