Freedom of Expression,  Libel Laws

Free speech here and over there

Guest post by amie

During my unplanned extended stay in New York, my access to Harry’s Place was restricted. Thanks again to all those who shared their lesser known gems to explore. I now can’t wait to return to follow them all up!

I had to make do with articles like this to fill the HP vacuum.

Administration courts questionable Muslim groups, Tariq Ramadan ban reversed, bloggers alarmed: sounds strangely familiar.

While the administration’s solicitation of Muslims and Arab-Americans has drawn little fanfare, it has not escaped criticism. A small but vocal group of research analysts, bloggers and others complain that the government is reaching out to Muslim leaders and organizations with an Islamist agenda or ties to extremist groups abroad.

I could marvel at leisure yet again at how the First Amendment threads through American consciousness at every level; at the highest, the Supreme Court free speech judgment last week.

Coming from a jurisdiction where the ideological battle lines are drawn differently, I found it interesting to read that even though Chief Justice Roberts has generally pulled the court sharply rightwards, this and another recent decision “suggest that the Roberts Court is prepared to adopt a robustly libertarian view of the constitutional protection of free speech.”

But even at the parochial level of licensing of stalls in public parks, the free speech issue is a live issue, with some unintended consequences.

I loved this vignette about the guy whose attempt to sell his poems originally brought about the law protecting the sale of written material in Central Park:

“There are no cartoons against Nixon in here, therefore it’s not political, therefore it’s merchandise, therefore you can’t sell it.”

Mr. Ferguson told the captain to check with the Police Department’s lawyers.

While the captain went to call headquarters, an officer came over and said he wrote poetry too. “He said he’d had poems in Playboy and The New York Times,” Mr. Ferguson recalled. “I showed him one of mine. He said, ‘Nice alliteration.’ Then the captain comes back and says, ‘You’re right.’ ”

Mr. Ferguson was free to go.

And back in the UK, I was greeted with the report of the libel reform hustings held by Sense about Science, the group which supported Simon Singh. Read here how the respective parties put forward their libel reform plans.

And I listened to this debate on the issue between some lawyers including Lord Hoffman.

Free Speech advocate Gavin Miller QC asked Lord Hoffman if he recognised these words, and quoted them in unmistakeably withering tones:

“The complaints about libel tourism come entirely from the Americans and are based upon a belief that the whole world should share their view about how to strike the balance between freedom of expression and the defence of reputation.”

Lord Hoffman acknowledged them as his own, and was still as pleased with himself for uttering them, as when I critiqued them here.

Once again, most of the discourse was framed around a David claimant as against a Goliath news corporation with limitless funds to wear the claimant down. As I pointed out in my post:

Of the vast sweep of democratic discourse pulsing across the world of blogs and twitter, be it in the UK or Iran, there is Lordly disregard. The voice of the lone or small group blogger, enabled often by a principled but modestly resourced web host, for whom £10,000 could spell ruin and silence, is loftily consigned to the dustbin not of history, but of the future of free speech in the digital age.

Except for Gavin Miller, who cited a case he had defended of a Libyan refugee in England writing an anti-Ghadaffi regime blog in the Libyan language aimed at Libyans. In another act of libel tourism, a Libyan came to England and sued the dissident here with the aim of silencing the website. The dissident had to pay £60k damages, £60k costs, lost his home and was bankrupted. Miller complained that in deciding this and similar cases, the freedom of speech issues are not taken into account sufficiently by the courts (as they are meant to be under the HRA), and balanced against the right to reputation.

But of course, I also came back to the delicious satisfaction that sometimes, (at least according to these reports) a habitual predilection for recourse to the libel laws can end very badly indeed.

Author Rachel Polonsky writes:

Bob [author Robert Service] and his wife Adele stood to lose everything if it progressed as far as a libel suit.

“Adele and I are scared out of our wits,” he told me that night. “I can’t leave her without a home. Believe me, the past fortnight has been hell for Bob and Adele.”

It was no thanks to the libel laws, and only because of Figes’s IT cluelessness that Polonsky’s detective work nailed him, and the message was delivered ironically by Polonsky’s lawyers Carter-Ruck:

Figes was on the receiving end of the kind of letter he has been sending out to publications great and small for more than a decade, to stop anyone criticising his books or saying there were problems of scholarly propriety with them. (He had the means for this legal barrage; he has made a lot of money from his books.)