• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Libel Case to Test 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act

An interesting UK libel action is in the offing. The Socialist Unity blog carries a message from far-left activist Tony Greenstein:

On February 13th 2008 I initiated proceedings in the High Court for libel and defamation against Gilad Atzmon, who will be well known to many people.

…I have therefore issued proceedings in respect of:

False allegations of serious criminal conduct and fraud. concerning alleged offences over 20 years ago, contrary to s.8 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

False allegations of violent crimes, in particular against Jewish people

False allegations of race hate crimes against Jewish people

False allegations of vandalising church property

Greenstein and Atzmon are both Jews known for strong anti-Zionist views; however, Atzmon also expounds weird “Jewish power” conspiracy theories. Here’s a taster:

We must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously…American Jewry makes any debate on whether the Protocols of the Elders of Zionitic forgery are an authentic document or rather a forgery irrelevant. American Jews do try to control the world, by proxy. So far they are doing pretty well for themselves at least.

This kind of discourse has had a baleful influence over pro-Palestinian (and anti-war) activism in the UK in recent years, and Greenstein’s polemics against it prompted Atzmon to compose an essay which claimed that Greenstein had had some minor criminal convictions in the 1980s. Without going into the details (readers can look for those themselves), the alleged crimes were personal rather than political matters, and Atzmon has apparently raised them simply as an ad hominem argument.

In the UK, minor criminal offences become “spent” after a period of time, which means they need not be disclosed to employers except in certain circumstances, and the person concerned no longer has a criminal record. The law also says that a person can be sued for libel if they publicise a spent conviction for “malicious” reasons, meaning that something can be true but also libellous, depending on the motive of the person doing the disclosing. Unfortunately, however, this part of the Act raises numerous questions: how exactly does one prove or refute a charge of “malice”? What counts as “disclosing” a spent conviction when something may have been reported in newspapers at the time, and be well-remembered in certain circles anyway? Can one publish some details of a case, but not others? At the moment, even when someone is confident that they are not malicious and that they can justify mentioning a spent conviction, the possible legal hassles may result in self-censorship; someone wishing to write about the history of a political movement or of certain individuals with a public profile may find themselves unable to give a full narrative due to fear of the Act, and this has had an impact on Wikipedia.

As far as I am aware, this will be the first time that the 1974 Act will be tested in court, and hopefully the case will provide some guidance.