Northern Ireland’s Health Minister seems to be channeling the lyrics of Van Morrison’s song Heavy Connection: “You come into my dreams from a whisper to a scream.” Minister Robin Swann is preoccupied with Morrison’s criticism of his policies so he is now suing Morrison for defamation. The latest comments came after a concert was cancelled at the last minute. In an attack on free speech, Swann is suing Morrison for clearly political speech objecting to the actions of a public official.
Morrison has called Swann a “fraud,” and repeatedly said Swann is “dangerous.” In a gig in June Morrison chanted “Robin Swann is very dangerous.” The 76-year-old musician has been objecting to government-imposed restrictions on live music performances, according to the BBC. Morrison’s lawyer, Joe Rice, has correctly objected “that the words used by [Morrison] related to a matter of public interest and constituted fair comment.”
What is interesting is that Swann has been using free speech to rebut the allegations, including an op-ed for the Rolling Stone magazine.
In the United States, this is clearly protected political speech. It is also subject to a higher standard of proof for defamation. The standard for defamation for public figures and officials in the United States is the product of a decision decades ago in New York Times v. Sullivan. This is precisely the environment in which the opinion was written. The Supreme Court ruled that tort law could not be used to overcome First Amendment protections for free speech or the free press. The Court sought to create “breathing space” for the media by applying standard to both public officials and public figures. As such, public officials and public figures must show either actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.
I have been a critic of the increasing curtailment of speech in Great Britain through hate speech laws and other means. Such laws create an insatiable appetite for greater and greater speech regulation and create a sense of empowerment among citizens to silence those with whom they disagree. We have been following (here and here and here and here and here and here and here) the worsening situation for years.
The use of defamation laws to curtail speech has been a favorite tactic by government officials to run up costs and ruinous damage awards for critics. What is particularly striking is that Swann used free speech to combat what he considered bad speech. However, he then turned to more coercive means to try to silence Morrison.
Calling an official a “fraud” or his policies “dangerous” is core political speech. If citizens can now be sued for such political speech, it would be a chilling effect on free speech that would be perfectly glacial.
It does not help that I am almost as big a Van Morrison fan as I am a free speech fan. However, Swann would be wise to follow Morrison’s lyrics and “Let your soul and spirit [and free speech] fly.”