The first amendment to the US constitution guarantees freedom of speech.
It does occasionally cause problems - for example, it's the reason they have no limits on election spending such as we have. In my opinion the absence of those limits, with the result that fighting elections is far more expensive than it is here, has distorted US democracy so that only the rich and those who have the name recognition required to raise vast sums to campaign, can afford to campaign effectively for high office with any hope of winning. Hence the majority of US politicians are either rich, associated with powerful interest groups, or the children or partners of politicians or celebrities.
Nevertheless, free speech is one of the necessary conditions of a functioning democracy. Up until now I thought this principle was sufficiently embedded in British law, custom and practice that we did not need any constitutional guaranteed right to free speech. I am starting to change my mind, and what has just happened to a number of leading bloggers is one of the reasons.
I disagree with much of what Tim Ireland writes. Nevertheless, his arguments usually add something to debate even when I don't share his views, and he is also often very funny and entertaining.
I have no doubt that because of Tim's "Bloggerheads" site many people who otherwise would have been too disillusioned with politics to take any interest have followed some of the things going on in our country. It has to be a good thing for democracy that a wider range of people get engaged, even if only to the extent of reading and sharing views in the internet, with the issues of the day.
So I was appalled to read that not just Tim Ireland's blog, but those of Craig Murray, Boris Johnson MP, Clive Summerfield, and Bob Piper have been shut down because Tim and the former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, wrote some critical comments about a wealthy Uzbehk businessman to which he took exception.
According to an email from Craig Murray which has been quoted on Iain Dale's Diary, nothing has been tested in court, but lawyers (Schillings) acting for the businessman concerned sent letters to the web server who hosted his blog accusing his comments of being defamatory, and making similar objections to posts on Tim Ireland's blog.
The server hosts, services management company Fasthosts shut down the server at the first sign of trouble. This did not just affect Tim Ireland and Craig Murray, who had made the comments to which exception was taken. It also took down the blogs of Boris Johnson MP, Bob Piper, Clive Summerfield, and others who were in no way parties to the dispute.
British democracy has been robust enough to allow Tim Ireland's blog to say some exceptionally rude things about the present and former Prime Ministers, other bloggers, and a great many other people, and we accept it as part of free speech. To discover that a weathly foreign businessman who wants to buy a football club can get that voice shut down so easily is a nasty shock.
It's bad enough that Tim and Craig have had their blogs shut down without the chance to defend their comments in court. It is even worse that a number of other prominent bloggers, including an MP and leading candidate for Mayor of London, have had their blogs taken down by "collateral damage."
Indeed it is an interesting question whether sabotaging Boris in this way, just before the final decision on who should be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, is or should be against electoral law.
As it happens, because he is an MP, Boris Johnson has the power to take an extremely effective form of retribution, against which Schillings and their client have no defence whatsoever, and I hope he is seriously considering making use of it.
Comments made by an MP in the course of his duties are protected by parliamentary privilege. They are not just immune from libel or slander actions: the press have the right to report anything said in parliament, and any attempt to take action against someone reporting comments made in the House of Commons would put Schillings and their client themselves on the wrong side of the law - they would be committing the offence of contempt of parliament.
Boris might therefore like to consider obtaining a list from Craig Murray of all his concerns about the gentleman responsible for this situation, and then raise them all, or any that Boris considers relevant to the question of whether he is a fit and proper person to own Arsenal FC, in the House of Commons under the protection of parliamentary privilege.
(A PQ along the lines of "Does the minister consider that any of the following concerns raised by our former ambassador to Uzbekhistan have any relevance to the ownership of Arsenal Football Club?" should do it.")
Go on Boris - and after every newspaper and blogger is then free to repeat those allegations with no possible comeback, the next wealthy businesmen who is tempted to use his money to try to suppress free speech might think twice.
But it is only happenstance that one of the victims this time is an MP.
David Cameron has suggested replacing the Human rights act with a British Bill of Rights. I think it needs to include our version of the First Amendment - a guarantee of Free Speech within the law.