Free speech should never be taken for granted

A trip to the US re­minded me that some coun­tries still value the right to stand up and say what you mean

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters to the editor - JULIET SA­MUEL

Jet-lagged, in an art deco ball­room in New York’s Times Square, I have been wit­ness­ing this week just how se­ri­ously Amer­i­cans take their right to free speech. The event was an awards din­ner held on Thurs­day night by the lib­er­tar­ian cam­paign group, the Rea­son Foun­da­tion. The win­ner of its big­gest prize was Jim Caruso, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Fly­ing Dog Brew­ery. I worked as an in­tern for Rea­son Mag­a­zine back in the day and was there as a fi­nal­ist for a me­dia award (I didn’t win, alas).

Mr Caruso proudly col­lected his award for de­fend­ing free speech. This, he told his au­di­ence, doesn’t dis­ap­pear all at once. It is eroded slowly, day by day, bit by bit. The US con­sti­tu­tion’s first amend­ment, which pro­tects it, is the “foun­da­tional free­dom” for all other free­doms, he de­clared.

So what was the right that he had been fight­ing for so bravely? In 1995, Fly­ing Dog placed a new la­bel on one of its beers bear­ing the words: “Good beer. No shit.” Ex­press­ing such a sen­ti­ment, you might think, is an Amer­i­can birthright.

Not ac­cord­ing to the Colorado Liquor Board, which banned the of­fend­ing la­bel. Fly­ing Dog mar­shalled its re­sources and sued. Mean­while, it re­placed the la­bel with one declar­ing: “Good beer. No cen­sor­ship.” Five years later it won the case.

Then, in 2009, the brewer ran afoul of cen­sors again. It had named its new beer “Rag­ing Bitch”, fea­tur­ing a rather crazed-look­ing ca­nine on its la­bel. This time, it was the Michi­gan Liquor Con­trol Com­mis­sion that de­clared it was “detri­men­tal to the health, safety and wel­fare of the gen­eral pub­lic”, and was banned. An­other five-year le­gal bat­tle en­sued un­til, last year, Fly­ing Dog once again won the right to of­fend sen­si­tive souls. Rag­ing Bitch was back.

In Bri­tain, where it’s now il­le­gal to pro­duce an ad­vert that de­picts a tired mother do­ing the house­work in case it fur­thers gen­der roles, free speech is a highly qual­i­fied right. So it’s good to be re­minded ev­ery so of­ten that across the pond, there is still a land where free speech is no small beer.

Talk­ing re­cently to a pro­fes­sor at a top uni­ver­sity, I learnt that it is now com­mon­place for stu­dents to ar­rive hav­ing never read a page of the Bi­ble – even those who are en­rolled to study his­tory or the­ol­ogy. Even worse, some are en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar with its most fa­mous sto­ries, like Adam and Eve, have no idea who Abra­ham was and can­not name a sin­gle king men­tioned in the good book.

“Do you think I should read the Bi­ble?” one wide-eyed stu­dent asked. The pro­fes­sor replied with an em­phatic yes – only to be up­dated later that the stu­dent’s stud­ies coun­sel­lor had ad­vised against it, be­cause do­ing so was “im­pos­si­ble”.

Per­son­ally, I have no ob­jec­tion to ex­pand­ing uni­ver­sity read­ing lists to add over­looked au­thors of di­verse per­spec­tives. But in this age of ex­treme re­li­gious ig­no­rance, it’s surely not too much to ask that they in­clude the ba­sics as well.

Board games, as Jemima Lewis noted on these pages yes­ter­day, are back in fash­ion as par­ents strive to prise chil­dren off their iphones. But bet­ter yet are word games, which re­quire no equipment beyond a pile of pens and paper. My Christ­mases are still spent im­mersed in Tele­grams, The Book Game and a fam­ily adap­ta­tion of scat­e­gories called How Many Things.

Tele­grams re­quires each par­tic­i­pant to com­pose an acros­tic de­scrib­ing a sce­nario that is col­lec­tively agreed us­ing a par­tic­u­lar word. So, for ex­am­ple, the event might be that one’s rel­a­tives have in­vented a new re­li­gion, and the word could be “mag­nif­i­cent”. A re­sult­ing ef­fort might be: “My As­pir­ing Guru Nan In­tro­duced For­ni­ca­tion Into Chris­tian­ity, Ex­pand­ing New Tes­ta­ment.” Win­ners are judged mainly by clev­er­ness, or laughs.

How Many Things in­volves choos­ing a cat­e­gory, like Euro­pean cities or, less bor­ingly, items found in an alien’s bed­room. In two min­utes, each per­son must write down as many as they can. The score can be hand­i­capped by de­duct­ing one’s age from it, though it ought to be capped at 20.

In the Book Game, the open­ing para­graph and blurb of a book are read aloud. Ev­ery­one then com­poses the sup­posed fi­nal para­graph. All are then read out, along with the real one, which the reader should tran­scribe. Nom­i­nally, the aim is to guess the gen­uine ar­ti­cle, but as usual with par­lour games, the ac­tual pur­pose is to come up with the most ob­scene ef­fort pos­si­ble. This cus­tom made me see David At­ten­bor­ough’s Quest in Par­adise in a new light.

I like cook­ing, but I de­spise chop­ping onions or gar­lic. The per­sis­tent smell hangs around on one’s fin­gers for days af­ter­wards, no mat­ter how much soap or scrub­bing they’re sub­jected to. Ev­ery­one seems to have a dif­fer­ent rem­edy, from clean­ing hands with le­mons to rub­bing them with a lit­tle stain­less steel pod that I was given one Christ­mas. I have now come across a new rem­edy: clean­ing one’s hands with a raw tomato. But surely Tele­graph read­ers can do bet­ter? FOL­LOW Juliet Sa­muel on Twit­ter @Ci­tysamuel; READ MORE at tele­­ion

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