Britain plans to clean up its unbalanced libel laws 

Last August, President Barack Obama signed the Speech Act, a law barring U.S. courts from enforcing foreign libel judgments on U.S. authors and publications reached in proceedings that don’t measure up to First Amendment standards.

The British found this somewhat humiliating, as they should have, because it was aimed at British libel laws that are wildly skewed in favor of the plaintiff. Generally in the U.S., someone suing for libel must prove that the offending article was false and was published with malice.

In the United Kingdom, the entire burden falls on the defendant, who must then prove to a court’s satisfaction that what was published was true. The result was “libel tourism,” where foreigners seeking to block or punish a publication would file suit in British courts even though the case had only a tenuous connection to Britain.

Notoriously, a Saudi billionaire sued a New York author for libel even though the sole connection to Britain was the 23 copies of her book sold there over the Internet. The author, Sue Ehrenfeld, didn’t defend the case and the courts awarded the Saudi a judgment of $15,000.

In 2009, a South African company, seeking to silence an activist shareholder, sued a weekly South African magazine in Britain. The court found out that the magazine’s website had been accessed from Britain only four times. That was too much even for a British court, and the judge threw out the case.

Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said the libel laws were “a farce — and an international embarrassment.”

The cases that come to trial are perhaps not even the most egregious failing in the system. The wealthy, like the Saudi, and big corporations can bully authors into silence with the threat of inflicting huge legal fees to defend a libel suit.

Clegg, in announcing that Britain’s new Conservative government would overhaul the libel laws, said, “We want public-spirited academics and journalists to be fearless in publishing legitimate research. Not least when it relates to medical care or public safety.”

The proposed laws are to be unveiled this spring. But, as the British newspaper Guardian cautioned, the last time the libel laws were redone, in the 1950s, it took 12 years. Surely the Brits can move faster than that.

Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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