"A Town Called Sue": England Weighing Changes To Libel Law

By Wall Street Journal | by Ashby Jones
Friday, December 11th, 2009 @ 11:31PM

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This term “libel tourism” has been kicking around for some time now. It refers to the practice of filing libel suits not necessarily in one’s home country, but in jurisdictions in which the laws on libel are more plaintiff friendly. For years, the preferred destination for such tourism has been jolly old England, where the libel laws are decidedly different than they are in the U.S. (Partly because of this, London has gained the moniker among some as “A Town Called Sue.”)

But the NYT reports on Friday that English lawmakers are considering a change to the nation’s 19th-century libel laws. A member of the House of Lords is preparing a bill that would, among other things, require foreigners to demonstrate that they have suffered actual harm in England before they can sue there. The differences between the sets of laws are pretty stark. The NYT describes them this way:

English libel law is the opposite of America’s in many ways. In the United States, the plaintiff, or accuser, must prove that the statement in question was false; public officials must also prove that it was made maliciously, with “reckless disregard” for the truth. In England (Scotland has its own system), the burden of proof rests on the defendant, whose statements are presumed false and who has to establish that they are true.

Perhaps not surprisingly, foreign publications like the NYT itself are among those with particular interest in seeing the law changed. In a recent statement made to the English House of Commons, a consortium of foreign papers called England’s libel laws “repugnant to U.S. constitutional principles.” It said that because of the threat of litigation, some American newspapers were considering installing firewalls to block access to their Web sites in England. A number of states, including New York, have passed legislation making English libel rulings difficult to enforce in American courts.

Congress is considering similar legislation. The catalyst for the New York law was the case of the American scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued in the English courts by a Saudi billionaire, Khalid bin Mahfouz, after she accused him of channeling money to Al Qaeda in her book, Funding Evil. The book sold just 23 copies in England, but that was deemed sufficient to allow Mahfouz to bring his case here. Ehrenfeld, who refused to participate in the case or submit to the courtメs jurisdiction, was ordered in a default judgment to pay him more than $225,000.

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