Royal Pain: Prince Harry—and his media fans—need educating on why the First Amendment matters

May 25, 2021 | By KATHY HOEKSTRA
Prince Harry

Poor Prince Harry! After surrendering his royal position in the House of Windsor last year to start life anew in the United States with his actress wife Meghan Markle, he’s had a tough time adjusting to our country’s ways.

It seems certain aspects of our American society leave the prince befuddled. In a recent podcast interview, Harry suggested he doesn’t have much regard for the First Amendment:

“I don’t want to start sort of going down the First Amendment route because that’s a huge subject and one in which I don’t understand because I’ve only been here a short period of time.

But you can find a loophole in anything. And you can capitalize or exploit what’s not said rather than uphold what is said. I’ve got so much I want to say about the First Amendment as I sort of understand it, but it is bonkers.”

Of course, for us Yanks of non-royal, non-British pedigree, individual rights like those protected under the First Amendment—freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of petition and assembly; and freedom of association—are anything but “bonkers.” They’re the very foundation of a free and civilized society in which citizens can thrive and flourish.

Harry did admit he’s only been on American soil for a “short period of time.” So, let’s give the erstwhile monarch a pass for his dismissal of a core American liberty, and trust he will take time to educate himself on the Constitution while he’s here.

But here’s who doesn’t deserve a pass: the U.S. media entities whose coverage of Harry’s gaffe suggests that caring about the First Amendment is a “conservative” obsession—a prepossession blared from the headlines alone:

Newsweek: Prince Harry Calls First Amendment ‘Bonkers,’ Sparks Conservative Backlash

The Mercury News: Prince Harry’s ‘bonkers’ First Amendment quip fuels outrage among top U.S. conservatives

Entertainment News: Prince Harry Calls The First Amendment ‘Bonkers’ and He Makes a Good Point

Vanity Fair: Prince Harry Called the First Amendment “Bonkers” and Gave Some Talking Heads an Excuse to Relitigate the Revolutionary War

The lead sentence in the Vanity Fair piece is particularly revealing: “A contingent of conservative-leaning politicians and talking heads are up in arms after Prince Harry offhandedly dubbed their beloved First Amendment “bonkers, VF’s Emily Kirkpatrick explains.

There was a time when journalists were champions of key liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Such liberties, as protected under the First Amendment, weren’t “conservative” values—they were shared and cherished by all Americans who valued freedom of expression and opinion.

That was certainly my experience as a working journalist: The First Amendment wasn’t something “beloved” just by conservatives, but by all Americans. It makes one wonder what budding reporters are taught in journalism schools these days.

Today’s journalists would do well to reacquaint themselves with the core liberties protected under the First Amendment, particularly freedom of speech. A good place to start would be with this blog post from my PLF colleague, Wen Fa, who explains Why Free Speech is Important. Wen notes that in many countries (his native China included), government entities are not shy about squashing and punishing dissent by clamping down on those who try to exercise free speech. But that’s not the case in the United States—thanks to our robust constitutional protections.

“America offers a richer tradition,” Wen writes. “People are free to express their ideas, even if those ideas are unpopular, unconventional, or wrong (though, in many cases, they may eventually be proven right). Americans are thus free to participate in peaceful protests, wear black armbands to school, and even burn the nation’s flag. A speaker may say things that are unpopular, uncomfortable, or downright grotesque. But in a free society, we engage dissent through discussion and debate, rather than through censorship and punishment.

Thanks to the First Amendment, Americans enjoy stronger protections for free speech than people in most other countries—and that’s a great thing, even if it means we sometimes have to contend with unpleasant or unpopular opinions. Prince Harry may or may not come to appreciate the value of American free speech protections—we certainly don’t begrudge the Duke of Sussex his right to talk to a podcaster, Oprah Winfrey, or anyone else he wishes, about whatever he wishes. We have, after all, the right not to listen.

However, media figures should make more of an effort to stand up for the values enshrined in the Constitution. Failing to do so, when their own livelihoods depend so deeply on the First Amendment, is just…bonkers.