Americans owe Jacqui Smith, Great Britain's home secretary, a debt of gratitude for barring Michael Savage from her country. It made shockwaves across talk radio and the blogosphere on Monday, when news broke that the verbose son of an immigrant, who is heard on more than 300 stations in the U.S., was persona non grata in a nation that we've had previous disagreements with. Savage has a Ph.D. from Berkeley, he's authored some two dozen books, and he has a tendency to get under the skin of people who listen without thinking. Banning him from an entire country because of his so-called "extreme views" gives us an excellent opportunity to review our own history and the reasons some of us value freedom of speech in America.
Britain's Long Parliament passed a law in June of 1643, "For the Regulating of Printing." The British government had tried, unsuccessfully, to make free-thinking people stop writing pamphlets and books that were critical of – you guessed it – the British government. You couldn't legally print anything in Britain unless it got the stamp of approval from government-appointed watchdogs. Anything that was critical of the government was not approved, being deemed too dangerous for the public to read. As with all government regulations, banning something never does away with it, so long as there is a demand for it. Pirate print shops began springing up all over the place, and the Long Parliament passed its edict in 1643 to stamp them out.
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The law allowed justices of the peace, captains, and constables to break down the door of any citizen who was believed to be hiding a non-sanctioned printing press. Any printing materials and machinery were to be seized and brought back to Parliament to be destroyed. The offending owner of the contraband was to be taken into custody and held "so they may receive such further punishments, as their Offences shall demerit, and not to be released untill they have given satisfaction to the Parties imployed in their apprehension for their paines and charges, and given sufficient caution not to offend in like sort for the future." These were laws that had originally been passed under Queen Elizabeth, but were now reapplied in 1643 in a much more draconian fashion.
John Milton, the author of "Paradise Lost," was moved to write a speech in response to the practice of busting up these printing presses. The following year, his protest, titled was posted in prominent places around London. It was an impassioned plea in favor of unlicensed printing, aimed squarely at the political rulers of his day. (One wonders how he got it printed.) Milton's argument was that the truth is absolute, and if everyone's writing but has a fair hearing, the truth will win out. He asserted that no one should be afraid to hear different points of view, if they're secure in their own beliefs. The speech had little effect in his lifetime, and the ban on unlicensed printing remained in place, off and on, for another 50 years in England.
The print version of Milton's speech was very popular and has survived to this day. There is little doubt that many of the framers of our Constitution and Bill of Rights read it and diligently considered the arguments in it. They had had their own share of not getting a fair hearing with their British rulers, and wanted to ensure that the citizens of the United States would forevermore be able to speak out, even if their speech offended government officials.
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So we owe Jacqui Smith a debt of gratitude for banning Michael Savage. And make no doubt about it: Banning Savage is all about banning speech that the establishment doesn't like. We shouldn't be surprised at this action, as Britain has a history of giving us reason to protect speech in our own country. Ms. Smith has given us a reminder of the oppressive tactics of government that led to the establishment of many of the freedoms Americans hold dear. She's given us a reminder that truth is absolute, and that truth always wins out if it's allowed to see the light of day. And by picking on Michael Savage, she's now treated us to something else that liberty-loving Americans are very fond of: Fireworks.
Robert Mallory is a television news anchor for the ABC News affiliates in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, Alaska, covering news stories ranging from politics to entertainment.