Friday, 19 March 2010

Libel - A chilling effect on free speech

In the case of Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd. and Others, [1993] 2 W.L.R. 449 the Courts declined to allow a local authority to sue for libel. They feared that to allow government bodies and political parties to sue for defamation "must inevitably have an inhibiting effect on freedom of speech"

But individuals can use English libel law to intimidate and silence their critics. The BBC, in a classic example of English understatement said about Robert Maxwell - "Many people cowered from criticising him, not least because of his readiness to confront his critics in the libel courts." Criticism of the man was stifled during his lifetime by his aggressive use of threats of an expensive legal battle. It didn't take long for editors of publications to avoid the risk of upsetting him.

The issue became a matter of international concern as a result of gagging orders which meant that national newspapers were not able to report parliamentary questions. [The Trafigura Affair, 2009]

A report in the Guardian outlines how Jack Straw, the current lord Chancellor, intends to address the issue. It is available here.

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