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Call for Libel Reform in UK and USA

A few days ago the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange held a seminar on libel tourism, as it explains on its website:

Policy Exchange takes great pleasure in inviting you to a lunchtime seminar entitled “Libel Tourism – Does UK Law Need Reform?”…This growing phenomenon of “libel tourism”, where non-English citizens travel to England in order to press libel charges on US citizens whose work is protected under US law – shows the willingness of courts in this country to extend libel laws well beyond the boundaries of England. This has been seen by many as a great threat to the right of free speech in the West.

The case of Rachel Ehrenfeld and Funding Evil inevitably loomed large. Martin Bright wrote a short report for the New Statesman:

Sean O’Neill of the Times raised the concern that journalists were becoming increasingly cowed by threats from libel lawyers representing rich individuals and Islamists. Others on the panel, including Anthony Julius, were critical of newspapers which failed to take the fight to litigious individuals.

I now believe there needs to be a serious review of the law surrounding freedom of expression in this country. Joanne Cash, the libel barrister and Conservative parliamentary candidate for North Westminster, who was hosting the event, agrees with me. So watch this space.

I’m glad in particular to see Julius taking a stand against “litigious individuals”. Of course, there are some ironies here: in Decemcer Policy Exchange threatened to sue BBC Newsnight for libel – famously declaring it would battle the programme “to trial or capitulation” (although it hasn’t done either so far). And while Ehrenfeld’s British lawyer was denouncing Saudi libel tourism a few years ago, he was quite happy to help an Israeli academic engage in the same practice against an American-Palestinian last month – and I wonder if that more recent case got mentioned at Policy Exchange?

Meanwhile, the daftly-named but useful New York State “Libel Terrorism Protection Bill” looks set to become federal law in the USA, with Arlen Specter and Joseph Liberman  sponsoring the Free Speech Protection Act of 2008. They explain how this would work in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal:

Our bill bars U.S. courts from enforcing libel judgments issued in foreign courts against U.S. residents, if the speech would not be libelous under American law. The bill also permits American authors and publishers to countersue if the material is protected by the First Amendment. If a jury finds that the foreign suit is part of a scheme to suppress free speech rights, it may award treble damages.

UPDATE: Harry’s Place has more on the Policy Exchange seminar. And in the US, a similar Bill to that of Specter and Lieberman is currently being proposed to counter “religious defamation” claims.

2 Responses

  1. […] threats that have hampered the critical scrutiny of Saudi billionaires; however, despite various meetings and complaints, no reforms have so far been […]

  2. […] for reform have been going on for a long time – and indeed, I’m not aware that the Policy Exchange seminar on the subject which was held in July 2008 had any practical consequencies. However, there is […]

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