While we publicly grapple with online privacy and intellectual property legal issues on this side of the pond, our English-speaking brethren on the other side are engaged in a hot debate over defamation law and libel tourism. Donning a very distinguished name, if passed, the Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s draft defamation bill will significantly alter libel and slander laws in England and Wales.
Journalists will have more freedom to publish parody and “irreverent criticism” without fear of a costly defamation lawsuit; “convenience test” standards will be stricter, thus making it harder for wealthy entities to file claims for little cause; and perhaps of most import to US citizens, the proposed bill with most likely eradicate UK libel tourism.
What Is Libel Tourism?
Some people shop for jewelry and others for jurisdictions. The act of filing a defamation lawsuit in a dominion with the most favorable laws is known as libel tourism. Over the years, London has earned a reputation for being very defamation-claimant-friendly. The result is an increase in costly legal battles, which tax payers end up covering, that involve individuals with extremely tenuous links to the UK.
The Duke of Brunswick Rule: Why London Is The Libel Tourism Capitol Of The World
We’ve established what libel tourism is, and we’ve established that England and Wales are popular spots for libel tourism; so now the obvious question is: why is the UK such a popular spot for libel tourism?
The root of the phenomenon can be traced back to The Duke of Brunswick.
One day, way back – we’re talking 17th century back – an exceptionally paranoid German Duke, recently exiled to France due to an peasant rebellion in his region, sent a servant to England to purchase a newspaper the nobleman suspected of having published material that could hurt his reputation.
Turns out Brunswick’s hunch was on-point; the Duke subsequently won his libel claim in a British court and was awarded pecuniary damages. The most important aspect of the famous defamation case, though, was its establishment of the precedence that every purchase of a newspaper constitutes a new act of libel.
In the Internet age, the Duke of Brunswick rule translates to one view of a web page.
But Is Libel Tourism Really A Problem?
There’s little theoretical doubt that London is where you go to get your tourism libel on, but the actual number of foreign lawsuits that make it in front of a high court or jury is on the decline. In fact, according to Joint Committee on Draft Defamation Bill, there hasn’t been such a case in two years.
While very few libel tourism classes have been heard by the UK’s high court as of late, the mere threat of a potentially costly London-based defamation suit dissuades foreign media outlets and others from publishing stories in the first place.
In the defamation draft bill comments, the committee acknowledged the “exaggerated” number of libel tourism lawsuits in their nation, but also averred that the courts “could benefit from more robust” judicial powers with regards to defamation law when it comes to dismissing cases that have little to do with a UK resident or entity.
Moreover, the committee also points out that while there are very few jurisdictionally questionable lawsuits that make it far in their system, the mere threat of being pulled into a London defamation court is damaging to international free speech. In other words, a blogger in Canada may be hesitant to publish something about a Saudi businessman for fear of being hauled into a London court because their blog page was viewed in the UK. (Yes, a scenario very close to that has actually happened and the claimant won!)
The US SPEECH Act
One of the reasons parliamentarians are keen to reform defamation standards is because other countries are beginning to pass laws that render UK Legislation impotent. One of those nullifying nations is the United States.
Unimpressed with how the Duke of Brunswick rule was “chilling” free speech in America and around the world, the Federal government enacted the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage – or SPEECH Act – in 2010. Its purpose is to prevent foreign slander and libel rulings that don’t pass a First Amendment sniff test from being enforceable in the United States.
The libel tourism is only a small part of UK defamation reforms. The island nation also seeks to codify stricter rules concerning fair comment and editorial freedom – moves that could open up a bold new era of British parody and free speech.