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Britain's Libel Laws Take Piss Out of Freedom of the Press?

Britain's Libel Laws Take Piss Out of Freedom of the Press?

Are the British aiming to squash free speech? Robert Murat, an official suspect in the Madeleine McCann case, has settled his libel case against several British newspapers for overconnecting him to her disappearance with headlines like "Sex Secret of Madeleine Suspect: Briton ‘Shared’ the Wife of Pool Cleaner at Villa." His pay out is thought to be close to $1 million. Murat lived close to location where Madeleine disappeared and was named the first formal suspect though he's denied any involvement in her disappearance last May.

Some consider the decision great.

Murat was libelled. Not once, but many times over. Scores of reports, and many headlines too, defamed him . . . he was often treated not as a suspect by papers but as a culprit . . . papers have been pushing at the boundaries of the British contempt rule for years. More is published about British crime suspects in advance of their being charged (and sometimes afterwards) than was ever the case 20 years ago. Why? Because they have got away with it.

Seems reasonable right? Accuse a guy of killing a little girl in the papers, pay a fine? Well, this free speech and freedom of the press issue doesn't stay on UK soil — British libel laws have a passport. To see how,


Here's the other side of the coin:

Perhaps you don't live in England or Wales, so you think this has nothing to do with you. You're wrong. English libel law now applies to everyone on earth. Make any accusation, anywhere in the world, and if the subject can demonstrate that a single person in England or Wales has read it, you could be sued for every penny, cent, rouble, rupee, or renminbi you possess. The Internet and the global nature of publishing ensure that these medieval laws have become the most powerful extraterritorial legislation ever drafted.

Even Sens. Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter voiced concern over the reach of the libel grab in the WSJ, saying: "Individuals with alleged connections to terrorist activity are filing libel suits and winning judgments in foreign courts against American researchers who publish on these matters."

Maybe Richard Jewel would have had something to say on the matter? Where's the line between libel and freedom of the press?


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