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31st October 2014, 8:57am
From fair taxes to free speech: why timeless Magna Carta still resonates with modern America
Lincoln Cathedral A British legal historian and an award-winning documentary maker and champion of free speech will deliver public guest lectures in Washington D.C. this November, outlining ways in which Magna Carta still resonates with modern America.

Magna Carta, the ‘grand charter’ signed by King John of England in 1215 AD under duress from his rebellious barons, is regarded today as the foundation of modern constitutional democracies and the inspiration for the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. It enshrined in England the rule of law, separation of church and state and the right to trial by jury.

Academics from the University of Lincoln, UK, are part of a civic delegation visiting the United States this winter from the historic English city, led by Lincoln Cathedral, to commemorate next year’s 800th anniversary of the sealing of the charter.

Lincoln possesses one of only four surviving original copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This document is currently touring the United States and will reside at the Law Library of Congress in Washington D.C. as part of the exhibition ‘Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor’, which runs from 6th November 2014 until 19th January 2015.

Professor Scott Davidson is Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln and a legal scholar specialising in international law and human rights. He will deliver a guest lecture at George Washington University Law School on Tuesday 4th November 2014 entitled ‘Power, Property, Death and Taxes’. He will illustrate how the motivation of the 13th Century English barons were concerns which still provoke tensions between states and their citizens today: the right to raise taxes, protection of individual property rights and the decentralization of power.

“The central themes of this medieval document are essentially timeless,” said Professor Davidson. “At its heart Magna Carta is about property disposition and the right of the king to raise taxes. This tension – the protection of the individual from the over-mighty state - runs through many political struggles of the past 800 years.
“We also find within Magna Carta the origins of parliament: it sets down a process which states that if the king wants to raise taxes, he must obtain the consent of the realm.”

Professor Brian Winston, holder of the Lincoln Chair at the University of Lincoln, is an EMMY-award-winning documentary maker and media historian who has written extensively on press freedoms. His latest book ‘A Right to Offend’ (Bloomsbury, 2012) assesses the current status of freedom of speech in the western world.

His talk ‘From the Magna Carta to the Protection of Violent Rap Lyrics: The Long, Strange Journey of Free Expression’ takes place on Wednesday 5th November at New York University Washington Center. He will trace back to Magna Carta the seeds of the most valued but vulnerable of civil liberties: the right to individual freedom of expression.

“There are many mythic dimensions to the Magna Carta,” Professor Winston said. “Its importance can be seen more in the way people interpret what it means rather than what it says."

Although Magna Carta makes no reference to free speech, it established the separation of church and state. Professor Winston will argue how this contributed to ‘the secularisation of the body of ideas’.  By outlining a number of key moments in this story, through the writings of Milton and Locke to the famous Zenger case of 1735, the First Amendment and the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, he will outline the lineage of free expression in present day America, focussing on the inconsistencies in protections for print, broadcast and online media.

"Every new medium has to fight to establish its own form of free expression,” said Professor Winston. “Most have not got anywhere near as far as the press."

Professor Scott Davidson’s talk ‘Power, Property, Death and Taxes’ takes place in the Tasher Great Room at George Washington University Law School on Tuesday 4th November 2014, starting at 6.30pm.

Professor Brian Winston’s talk ‘From the Magna Carta to the Protection of Violent Rap Lyrics: The Long, Strange Journey of Free Expression’ takes place in the Abramson Auditorium at New York University Washington Center on Wednesday 5th November 2014, starting at 7.30pm and will be followed a panel discussion. It is jointly presented by the University of Lincoln and the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment.

Admission to both events is free and open to the public. For more information or to book a place, email

In celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015, the University of Lincoln has declared 2015 its Year of Liberty and will announce in Washington the creation of its Magna Carta Scholarships. The scholarships are worth a 20% fee discount on the University of Lincoln’s MA Historical Studies and MA Medieval Studies courses. One scholarship is available for each course for self-funded fee-paying international (non-EU) students enrolling in September 2015. See full terms and conditions at:

Students interested in these programs or scholarships can meet representatives of the University of Lincoln’s International Office at a drop-in session on Saturday 8th November, from 10am– 4pm at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington.

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