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Britain, Long a Libel Mecca, Reviews Laws
Sarah Lyall writes in the NYTimes:
LONDON — England has long been a mecca for aggrieved people from around the world who want to sue for libel. Russian oligarchs, Saudi businessmen, multinational corporations, American celebrities — all have made their way to London’s courts, where jurisdiction is easy to obtain and libel laws are heavily weighted in favor of complainants.
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.
English libel law is the opposite of America’s in many ways. In the United States, the plaintiff, or accuser, must prove that the statement in question was false; public officials must also prove that it was made maliciously, with “reckless disregard” for the truth.
In England (Scotland has its own system), the burden of proof rests on the defendant, whose statements are presumed false and who has to establish that they are true.
It is not only news organizations that are running afoul of the law. Environmentalists, anticorruption campaigners, medical researchers and soccer fans posting criticisms of their teams on blogs have all been sued or threatened with legal action in recent years.
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.
More than 20,000 people, including Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, have signed a petition saying that the laws “discourage argument and debate” and have no place in scientific disputes...