Piers Morgan and the First Amendment

By Jonathan Peters
Follow me @jonathanwpeters on Twitter.

I have no idea if it’s ironic to have 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife (I mean, why have so many spoons in the first place?), but I do know it’s ironic to exercise your First Amendment rights in order to deport a man for exercising his First Amendment rights, all to discuss a provision of the Bill of Rights.

Enter: Piers Morgan.

Last week, he invited Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, to appear on “Piers Morgan Tonight.”  Against the backdrop of the Newton school shooting, the two debated the meaning of the Second Amendment and the effectiveness of American gun laws, and things got heated when Morgan called Pratt “an unbelievably stupid man.”  Shortly thereafter, a petition appeared on the White House website, on the “We the People” page, calling for Morgan’s deportation.  (He’s a British citizen.)  In its entirety, the petition reads:

British Citizen and CNN television host Piers Morgan is engaged in a hostile attack against the U.S. Constitution by targeting the Second Amendment.  We demand that Mr. Morgan be deported immediately for his effort to undermine the Bill of Rights and for exploiting his position as a national network television host to stage attacks against the rights of American citizens.

The petition needed 25,000 signatures by Jan. 20 to receive a response from the White House.  As of this writing, nearly 80,000 people have signed it.  That’s nearly 80,000 people who want to deport Morgan because he expressed opinions contrary to theirs, because he said things that offended them, because he commented on a matter of public concern.

Morgan responded to the petition in a tweet, on Dec. 22: “Ironic U.S. gun rights campaign to deport me for ‘attacking 2nd Amendment rights’ – is my opinion not protected under 1st Amendment rights?”  A few days later, Morgan tweeted: “I don’t care about petition to deport me.  I do care about poor NY firefighters murdered/injured with an assault weapon today. #GunControlNow,” referring to the Monday shooting in Webster, N.Y.

Then, an amusing counter-petition appeared on Tuesday, again on the “We the People” page, titled “Keep Piers Morgan in the USA.”  So far, more than 3,500 people have signed it.  Here’s the language, in its entirety:

We want to keep Piers Morgan in the USA.  There are two very good reasons for this.  Firstly, the first amendment.  Second and the more important point.  No one in the UK wants him back.  Actually there is a third.  It will be hilarious to see how loads of angry Americans react.

Hilarious, indeed.

I’d count James Taranto, the Wall Street Journal columnist, among those “loads of angry Americans.”  Hetweeted at Morgan last week that the law might well allow the administration to deport him: “Your opinion is protected, your presence in the U.S. is not.  See Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972).”  Never mind that theKleindienst case, which focused on the rights of an alien scholar to enter the country to attend academic meetings, has no bearing whatsoever on the Morgan controversy.

At any rate, the freedoms of petition and speech are expressly set out in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

On the one hand, it warms my little heart to see so many people exercising their right to petition.  On the other hand, it breaks my little heart to see so many people exercise that right in service of suppressing the freedom of speech.

The writer Anthony Lewis once said we’re freer in the United States to say what we think and to think what we will than any other people in the world.  And that’s true.  Courts have struggled for years to define the extent of our expressive rights, and the result has been an evolving First Amendment story, one moved along by trial and error.

I tend to believe that ideas should compete in the marketplace for acceptance, although I’ll admit that the marketplace should be regulated (not all speech deserves protection, e.g., defamatory statements).  The real challenge, then, is that most of us say we’re committed to principles of free speech—but only in the abstract or with viewpoints we like.  We’re not so committed with viewpoints we don’t like.

Courts wrestle often with that reality in order to protect the rights of people who say things that are different, offensive, or unpopular.  That reality is important because the real power of the First Amendment lies not in the protection it gives to popular speech.  The real power of the First Amendment lies in the protection it gives to unpopular speech.

To some, Morgan “engaged in a hostile attack against the U.S. Constitution” and tried “to undermine the Bill of Rights.”  He said unpopular things.  I leave the gun-control debate to others, to people far more knowledgeable.  But it’s clear to me that there is no greater way to undermine the Bill of Rights than to call for the deportation of a commentator who exercised his First Amendment rights to discuss the Second Amendment.

Jonathan Peters is a media lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he is finishing his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. He blogs about free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written on legal issues for The Atlantic, Slate, The Nation, Wired, PBS, and the Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him @jonathanwpeters on Twitter. 

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