An End to Libel Tourism

Posted: October 20, 2008 in House of Representatives, Media
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While I’ve been obsessing over the presidential campaign, Congress is quietly continuing its work and the House of Representatives just passed a bill which will make American journalists and media lawyers very happy:

In a spare half-hour while discussing bailing out American capitalism, the US House of Representatives recently voted through an extraordinary bill with far-reaching implications for Britain’s courts. Yet it has received no publicity here and few of Britain’s lawyers even know of its existence.

By amending the legal code three weeks ago in order to prohibit the recognition and enforcement of foreign defamation judgments in the US, politicians sealed off America’s newspaper and book publishers from libel tourism – the use of British libel laws by non-nationals to sue foreign-owned publications such as books, newspapers and magazines that are distributed in Britain, even if only a few copies are involved.

Britain’s libel laws are widely considered to be among the most severe on publishers – and have been used by people from around the world, and increasingly by Hollywood celebrities, because American defamation laws give publications much greater licence.

Steve Cohen, the congressman who drew up the new US legislation, believes it will prevent the exploitation of defamation laws in Britain and other countries that lack the broad protections guaranteed by the US first amendment.

His measure is hugely popular in the States. It was passed unanimously, enjoying cross-party support and will now go to the Senate for ratification; it was applauded by the Association of American Publishers, the country’s principal book publishing trade body, and greeted enthusiastically by the New York Times on behalf of the newspaper industry. It “strikes an important blow for free expression”, said a leading article, which noted that people have been getting around America’s “high bar on libel lawsuits” by “bringing lawsuits in Britain where libel protections are notoriously weak”.

There have been very few voices raised against the measure. Two of the most notable have been a Belfast-based solicitor, Paul Tweed, who has a lengthy record of success acting for US celebrities in libel actions in England and Ireland, and a leading New York lawyer, John J Walsh.

“I have a respect for British jurisprudence and I also esteem responsible journalism,” Walsh says. “This bill makes it less likely that people who suffer from irresponsible journalism in publications that appear in Britain will have the chance for redress.” Walsh believes that the US, by seeking worldwide immunity from court decisions elsewhere, is in effect trying to export its first amendment to the rest of the globe.

Reporters are loving it, but the question in my mind now is where does this go next? American legislators just said to the rest of the world that they can pick and choose which of their laws apply to Americans on U.S. soil. What happens when the rest of the world picks up on that game and turns it around on the United States? It could be a very slippery slope.


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