Friday, December 11, 2009

British Libel Law May Soon Change

Great Britain has been a magnet for libel suits filed by aggrieved individuals living outside England. From Saudi businessmen to thin skinned foreign political figures, England has become the destination of choice for "libel tourism".

There are a number of ways that English libel law differs from American law. Under American law, a statement must be proven to be false before it can be libelous. Under English law, (Scottish law differs) the statement may well be true. But if it is proven to be injurious, a lawsuit can move forward. People have sued in British court for books written in America on the basis of a handful of copies being sold in England. Additionally, a statement is presumed to be false until proven otherwise. This is the opposite of American libel law, in which a statement is presumed to be true. The law can be and often is used to dampen free speech far from England's shores.

All this is about to change. The New York Times reports that foreigners who want to sue in England may soon have to prove that they actually suffered injury in England. The New York Times reports as follows.

"Embarrassed by London’s reputation as “a town called sue” and by unusually stinging criticisms in American courts and legislatures, British lawmakers are seriously considering rewriting England’s 19th-century libel laws.

A member of the House of Lords is preparing a bill that would, among other things, require foreigners to demonstrate that they have suffered actual harm in England before they can sue here."

The New York Times goes on to describe the remarkable consensus that has brought about a reevaluation of Britain's role as a black hole for freedom of expression.

"The justice secretary, Jack Straw, said recently that he was alarmed about “libel tourism.” And in the House of Commons, a committee has listened to a parade of witnesses denounce the current law as perverse, unfair, prohibitively expensive, contemptuous of free speech and an anachronism in an age when access to articles on foreign Web sites can be obtained anywhere.

“We all have substantial and increasing concern at the potential of the English law of defamation to affect our work unjustly and oppressively,” a consortium of foreign newspapers, publishers and human rights organizations, including The New York Times, said in a statement to the committee.

Noting that “one ‘hit’ in England is enough for a multimillion-pound libel action in London,” the statement called England’s libel laws “repugnant to U.S. constitutional principles.” It said that because of the threat of costly lawsuits, some American newspapers were considering abandoning distribution here and installing firewalls to block access to their Web sites in England."

It is a welcome development when the New york Times and the pillars of the mainstream media are on the same side of an issue as Michael Savage and others on the political right who might be far more likely to be sued. We live in a world that could not have been envisioned in the 19th century, when days and weeks separated continents that are now bridged by a mere mouse click. It is unthinkable that a British web surfer could sue someone abroad on the basis of a mere mouse click.

There has been a lot of "politically correct" insanity in England that has attracted deserved criticism. It is refreshing to see that the British are finally recognising their place in the world community and the duties they have to see that universal human rights are not dashed to pieces on England's shores. I hope that this legislation is passed quickly and that that this puts an end to England's sorry role as the Bermuda triangle of free speech. The British should be encouraged and congratulated for the breath of fresh air and common sense that has graced their shores. Sphere: Related Content

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