My kids had a lemonade stand a couple of weeks ago. They made a little money–enough to clear a profit and pad their piggybanks a little. Neighbors and passers-by stopped to chat and have a cup of lemonade and a freshly baked gingersnap. It was a pleasant scene–who doesn’t love lemonade on a hot day, especially when it’s peddled by two cute kids?–and it left us feeling pretty good about the neighborhood and about humanity in general. The willingness of people to support junior entrepreneurialism is truly nice to see.
I mention this because I’ve been writing a lot about libel lately, and libel is not a subject that makes you feel good about your fellow human beings. You could say that libel is the antithesis of neighborliness. Now the internet has made neighbors of us all, it’s easier than ever to give offense–and easier than ever to decide to be offended, sometimes enough to take it to court instead of working it out over the fence or in the letters column.
Americans are used to sheltering under the First Amendment. We sometimes forget that other countries do not recognize that standard. My coverage lately has focused on libel beyond U.S. borders. In the U.K., which has a reputation in the States as a haven for libel tourists, there’s momentum behind a movement to reform libel laws. In France next month, the editor of an academic journal will face criminal-libel charges over a review he published on a book-review website he also edits.
The French case is so unusual it may not set any kind of worrisome precedent. But it could, and that makes other editors and reviewers nervous. As well it should. In a publishing environment that does not conform to national boundaries, more writers and editors are vulnerable to legal actions no matter where they and potential plaintiffs live and work.
After my two latest stories about libel ran, I traded emails with Joe Sharkey, an American writer whose work appears in the New York Times and elsewhere. Sharkey has been a passionate campaigner against libel tourism, in part because he has been on the receiving end of a libel action brought against him in Brazil. That case involves an air crash in Brazil that Sharkey survived and went on to write about. (I won’t rehash the details here, but see this post on his blog.) Sharkey feels strongly that the MSM has not given this issue enough attention. He says that all of us ought to be worried. Here’s what he told me:
“So much of the libel tourism attention has been on the UK, but a huge part of the issue is the creep of these cases in other countries, not just Brazil in my case but Canada and Ireland and who knows where else. Also, I think it is crucial that Americans understand the threat is broad, and the implications are not just for authors and journalists, but for scholars, scientists, reviewers and even users of social networks. The libel case in France over a book review is still another important example. In my opinion, and given the Internet, this is the most grave threat to free speech in the U.S. in my lifetime.”
Here’s a mini-roundup of libel links that might be handy if you want to read further. I will add to this list as I think of more links that might be useful.
LIBEL LINKS AND RESOURCES:
The Libel Reform Campaign (U.K.). Petition and website maintained by the coalition of the Index on Censorship, English PEN, and Sense About Science that’s lobbying for reform of U.K. libel laws.
“London: The Capital of Libel Tourism?” by Gavin Phillipson. An English legal scholar argues that the media has overstated how big a threat libel tourism is.
“Something Rotten in the State of English Libel Law?” by Alastair Mullis and Andrew Scott. Two legal scholars, one at the University of East Anglia and one at the LSE, argue that some of the criticisms of English libel law are “misjudged.”
The Association of American Publishers has been lobbying for federal protection for American authors and publishers against foreign libel judgments. This AAP statement given to the House Judiciary Committee in February 2009 lays out their position.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has compiled a bloggers’ guide to online defamation law.