Thursday, May 22, 2008

UK infringement of freedom of speech

The UK's ridiculous laws are not only being used to infringe free speech in the UK, as when a 15-year-old picketing the Church of Scientology is given a citation for a sign referring to Scientology as a "cult," but to chill speech elsewhere as a result of its bad libel laws, where it seems to be all-too-easy for a deep-pocketed plaintiff to get a judgment against publishers of legitimate criticism. Recent examples include Khalid Salim A. Bin Mahfouz's lawsuit against U.S. author Rachel Ehrenfeld for her book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It, which resulted in a $225,000 default judgment against Ehrenfeld in London, even though she doesn't live there and the book wasn't published there; Bin Mahfouz obtained standing because some individuals in Britain purchased the book. This has led to the State of New York proposing an amendment to its code of civil practice to prohibit the enforcement of foreign libel judgments. Bin Mahfouz has similarly successfully sued in the UK against other writers 33 times for linking him to terrorism.

Similarly, a Ukrainian tycoon, Rinat Akhmetov, has sued in London against a Ukrainian newspaper, the Kyiv Post, owned by an American, even though it's not published in the UK, on the grounds that 100 subscribers are located in Britain. Akhmetov has also successfully sued Obozrevatel (Observer), a Ukrainian Internet news site that's not even in English, in the UK.

I think New York has the right idea. Better yet would be if Britain reforms its libel and insult laws.

UPDATE (May 23, 2008): The Crown Prosecution Service has declined to prosecute the boy with the "cult" sign, stating that "Our advice is that it is not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness (as opposed to criticism), neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression." Yet abuse, insult, and offense should not be the standard in any case.

Ed Brayton has now commented on that story at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

1 comment:

Ian H Spedding said...

Speaking as a British citizen, I entirely agree, although I attribute this scandalous situation to the denial, by politicians of all stripes, of a written constitution to Her Majesty's subjects.

Citizens of the United States have enjoyed the protections of such a constitution, embodying a codified declaration of fundamental human rights, since 1787. American citizens can cite The First Amendment as a statutory guarantee of their right to freedom of expression, for example. While recognizing the merits of the common law, the fact is that until the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into domestic law, a British citizen had nothing remotely equivalent in terms of a readily accessible guarantee of his or her right to freedom of speech.

In this particular case, I would hope that consideration is being given to an action against the police under the terms of the Human Rights Act on the grounds that the victim's rights under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated.