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.

  • The UK’s libel laws are dubious, and certainly the way that libel tourism has been exploited is unpleasant (look to Private Eye for an extensive account).

    They are, however, set in a context of an intrusive media environment, and a system where tabloid newspapers are able to elicit an alarming amount of control over their targets. Compare with France, where, through whatever means, prominent figures do have private lives.

    Whatever the case, I’m not sure if a constitution is the answer – it always seems to me that it ensures that political issues are settled in the courts, making the division between judiciary and politics less clear.

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  • o-shift

    Let’s make a deal with the UK. The USA agrees to play a real role in reducing global warming, and in exchange the UK rewrites its libel laws.

  • Regarding “the notion that libel laws themselves are outmoded when the internet gives everyone the means of response”, I’ll repeat what I said in that earlier discussion:

    The idea is both mathematically false and very, very, cruel. There are vast, enormous, disparities of audience between sites, and an ordinary blogger simply cannot hope to have the access to oppose being libeled by an A-lister. Now, there is a set of stock replies, that maybe the libel doesn’t hurt, maybe the audience is not important. etc. etc.

    But if one does care about being libeled – if the libel hurts, if the audience does matter – then the net is simply one more press ecology, with both sharks and minnows. Sure, one can sometimes get the help of powerful allies, or enemies-of-my-enemy. But that’s not any sort of deep change at all, just the same old game.

    I was “there” when net-changes-libel evangelism was put forward, more than a decade ago. It’s not new. And it’s not true.

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  • Monbiot’s article is spot on. I’m involved in setting up an open source investigative journalism project and I can see that the libel issue is going to be by far the biggest obstacle to opening up these processes. Wikileaks have a good idea, but it’s difficult to create community with anonymity.

  • Rinky Stingpiece

    What about “Seditious libel”?

    I would have thought that it’s perfectly legal to publish seditious material against the British state on an American hosted site, under the protection of the 1st Amendment.

    It’s not just Britain, but other EU countries like Germany that seem to think it’s legitimate, liberal, and morally “alright” to claim legal jurisdiction over the whole world!

    Has everyone forgotten John Stuart Mill and Voltaire? Has everyone forgotten why we fought against Hitler in WW2? Has everyone forgotten what free speech actually means?!

    I’m furious… the cheek of calling it free speech, when it’s just “licenced speech”; and the new Orwellian laws created by Blair’s IngSoc that, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, attempt to smuggle appalling censorship under the guise of anti-discrimination and “serious organised crime” of all things.

    I just want to phucking scream! I certainly want to tell them to phuck right off without fear of losing my career, my liberty, or my family.
    This isn’t “liberal democracy” – it’s coercion.

    What we need is an organised campaign for a British First Amendment… I’m sure plenty of Americans would join us in this fight and support us in kicking down these evil and onerous laws.

    Any takers?
    I’m serious; I want to live in a free country; how about you?!

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