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January 15, 2015

Free Speech and Magna Carta

The New Yorker, 15th January 2015

‘In an eleven-minute video, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed credit for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, calling it “a new turning point in the history of confrontation.” The video also cited Osama bin Laden’s warning “If there is no check on the freedom of your words, then let your heart be open to the freedom of our actions.” After a week’s worth of grim news from Paris, I sought refuge at the Library of Congress. There, in a small exhibit, is the Magna Carta, in Washington now to mark the eight-hundredth anniversary of its signing.

The Great Charter, as it translates from Latin—so named for the large size of the parchment rather than the lofty principles it espouses—is a single sheet with fifty-four lines of small lettering. The parchment is frail and a bit faded, its royal seal disintegrated. It was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and brought before King John on behalf of forty English barons, demanding rights and property. On June 15, 1215, in a meadow at Runnymede, the King signed it.

The document was initially a failure. It was annulled by the Pope after just ten weeks. The reforms that the King had agreed to, in order to quell a revolt, were abandoned. A temporary truce was quickly shattered. War erupted. But its premises couldn’t be ignored or defeated by force or intimidation. A year later, the regency of Henry III signed a slightly less radical version, which was reaffirmed by monarchs some forty-four times in the course of the next two hundred years.

The Magna Carta actually did less—indeed, a lot less—than is widely believed. Several of its sixty-three chapters (some just a couple of sentences) express small grievances with the feudal system or with ways of life peculiar to the early thirteenth century. Its concerns range from control of the forests to river navigation and scarcity of cash to pay debts.’

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