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
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 telegraph.co.uk/opinion