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Developer Sues Critics for Libel in USA

Those of us who have looked across the Atlantic for a beacon of hope against oppressive UK libel laws will be disurbed by a new case. The Institute for Justice reports (links added):

In perhaps the most striking example of a disturbing national trend, Dallas developer H. Walker Royall has launched a lawsuit spree to silence any media or public affairs commentator who dares expose his [alleged] attempted abuse of eminent domain.  Similar suits have been filed in Tennessee, Missouri and elsewhere by developers and governments looking to silence critics of eminent domain for private gain.  

Royall worked with the city of Freeport, Texas, to try to condemn a generations-old shrimp business owned by the Gore family to make way for a luxury marina.  The project became the subject of the book, Bulldozed: “Kelo,” Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land, authored by veteran legal journalist Carla Main…After journalist Main wrote her book exposing the [alleged] Freeport land grab, Royall sued her as well as her publisher, Encounter Books, for defamation.  He even sued nationally renowned Law Professor Richard Epstein who wrote a blurb for the book’s dust jacket.  When someone reviewed the book, he sued him.  When two newspapers published that review, he sued them.

“Eminent domain” is known in the UK as “compulsory purchase”. Libertarian conservatives dislike it on the grounds that that it allows big government to infringe private property rights, although liberals will surely share concern that governments would prioritise the wishes of developers over less-powerful land-owners. And everyone will hopefully be equally appalled that libel law is again being used as a response to criticism.

As Ed Brayton notes, conservative libertarian attorney Timothy Sandefur has some commentary on this:

This is an absurd violation of freedom of expression. Mr. Royall is clearly a “public figure” under the Supreme Court’s decisions in cases like Gertz v. Robert Welch and New York Times v. Sullivan, which means he can’t use accusations of libel to shut down criticism of him. But I suppose if you have contempt for private property rights, it isn’t hard to also have contempt for freedom of expression. Mr. Royall’s lawsuit is an outrage: a clear violation of the First Amendment, and a frivolous abuse of the legal process.

Our friends at the Institute for Justice have taken on the defense of Ms. Main and Prof. Epstein…

That’s nice, but what if Main and Epstein had not been able to secure the support of this organisation? Royall’s claim may be “absurd”, but such a strategy could still cause someone a lot of misery and stress – even in America.

Incidentally, the “public figure” distinction is one basic reform we could do with in the UK. But momentum for reform is slow  in the UK; and while in the USA we see true libertarians opposing the use of libel laws in the name of free speech,  in the UK right pseudo-libertarians are quite happy to make libel action threats themselves to shut down debate.

3 Responses

  1. That’s nice, but what if Main and Epstein had not been able to secure the support of this organisation? Royall’s claim may be “absurd”, but such a strategy could still cause someone a lot of misery and stress – even in America.

    It’s an unfortunate aspect of American life that those who lack access to representation are going to have a difficult time in a situation like this.

    On the other hand, defamation and libel can cause real damage to a person, and litigation is the only hope of relief for a person so damaged.

    So, you can’t shut the system down, and you can’t guarantee that some poor schlub won’t get a raw deal out of it.

    I don’t know what to do. From what I read here, I’ll take our system over the UK’s any day, though.

  2. A handful of eminent domain cases have been particularly divisive the past few years. It’s accepted practice, enshrined in the Constitution of the US, that government entities can force individuals and companies to sell land if that land is needed for a road, school, municipal building, military base, etc.

    The real stickler lately is that a handful of cities have used this law to fight “blight” and to increase tax revenues by seizing land from an individual and bequeathing it to a developer.

    Unfortunately, this practice was upheld by the US Supreme Court. A number of states have now passed laws specifically outlawing the practice and elected city leaders have consistently found themselves ousted from office for continuing to attempt this.

  3. […] calls for libel law reform in the UK are getting louder, despite my pessimism of just a few days ago; today there was an adjournment debate in the House of Commons. Liberal […]

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