The sun sets on free speech

When I am in England and other countries speaking with journalists, I often take the opportunity to put in a plug for the First Amendment, begging them to that they should fight for one of their own — and for a Section 230, while they’re at it — because with global publishing we are all put at risk by bad libel laws and lesser protections of free speech thanks to libel tourism that exploits these laws to chill speech anywhere on earth (publish a book in the US and if one copy is sold in Britain, you can be prosecuted until its awful laws). What America should be exporting — more than Coke or troops — is an understanding of living with the ethic of free speech we have inherited and the realization that the internet is the First Amendment brought to life.

In the Guardian today, George Monbiot goes on a proper attack against British libel laws, calling them what they are: “a global menace to free speech.” He writes:

If someone launches a sustained and malicious campaign of false charges against another person, and that person is given no opportunity to demonstrate that he is being wronged, he should be allowed to seek redress.

See, parenthetically, this discussion about the notion that libel laws themselves are outmoded when the internet gives everyone the means of response.

But the libel laws of England and Wales are tilted so heavily against the defendant and involve such monumental costs that they amount, in effect, to censorship by private interests: a sedition law for the exclusive use of millionaires. While in the United States the plaintiff must prove that the claims against him are false, in English law the defendants’ claims are presumed false until proven otherwise: he has to demonstrate his innocence. . . .

Perhaps you don’t live in England or Wales, so you think this has nothing to do with you. You’re wrong. English libel law now applies to everyone on Earth. Make any accusation, anywhere in the world, and if the subject can demonstrate that a single person in England or Wales has read it, you could be sued here for every penny, cent, rouble, rupee or renminbi you possess. The internet and the global nature of publishing ensure that these medieval laws have become the most powerful extra-territorial legislation ever drafted.

Yesterday two men with whom I seldom agree, the US senators Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman, launched a new bill, called the Free Speech Protection Act, to defend US citizens against English libel law. Our laws, they argue, threaten the “free-flowing marketplace of ideas” which “enables the ideals of democracy to defeat the totalitarian vision of al-Qaida and other terrorist organisations”. English libel law is an international menace, a national disgrace, a pre-democratic anachronism. It defends crooks, terrorists and tyrants from investigation. It threatens the free speech of people all over the world and causes untold damage to the reputation of this country. And neither the British government nor the British parliament gives a damn. . . .

On top of this, we are about to be subjected to a month of saccharine slathering over the grand progress of China, a nation that tramples the free speech of its citizens. We have endured the childish but murderous reaction to cartoons in Denmark (hear yesterday’s discussion on Morning Joe contrasting this with reaction to The New Yorker’s Obama cover; they brag, properly, that nobody’s going to be arrested at the magazine for a cartoon). We witness repression of speech in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, in South America.

Shouldn’t the UK, of all nations, stand up for free speech as an example to the world? If the US and UK are going to fight for anything together, let it be that. Perhaps my friends at the Guardian should take Monbiot’s call as inspiration to hold a campaign for a First Amendment in the UK.