Friday, December 11, 2009

Free Speech is for Sale in a Town Called Sue

Free speech is for sale in London, sometimes known, in a bitter journalists' joke, as A Town Called Sue. We have blogged about English libel laws several times before, and explained why it is a tax justice issue, and now we're delighted to link to an important recent publication by English PEN, a writers' group, and Index on Censorship.

The core recommendations, which we fully support, are:

1. In libel, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent
We recommend: Require the claimant to demonstrate damage and falsity

2. English libel law is more about making money than saving a reputation
We recommend: Cap damages at £10,000

3. The definition of ‘publication’ defies common sense
We recommend: Abolish the Duke of Brunswick rule and introduce a single publication rule.

4 . London has become an international libel tribunal
We recommend: No case should be heard in this jurisdiction unless at least 10 per cent
of copies of the relevant publication have been circulated here

5. There are few viable alternatives to a full trial
We recommend: Establish a libel tribunal as a low-cost forum for hearings

6. There is no robust public interest defence in libel law
We recommend: Strengthen the public interest defence

7. Comment is not free
We recommend: Expand the definition of fair comment

8. The potential cost of defending a libel action is prohibitive
We recommend: Cap base costs and make success fees and ‘After the Event’
(ATE) insurance premiums non-recoverable

9. The law does not reflect the arrival of the internet
We recommend: Exempt interactive online services and interactive chat from liability

10. Not everything deserves a reputation
We recommend: Exempt large and medium-sized corporate bodies and associations from libel law unless they can prove malicious falsehood

As the report notes, free speech is vital for democracy, for holding leaders to account, for the pursuit of knowledge, and for a strong and independent media. As the report notes, as we have noted:

English libel law imposes unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on free speech, sending a chilling effect through the publishing and journalism sectors in the UK. This effect now
reaches around the world.


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