‘Justice’ panel sparks int’l debate

Differences in U.S., U.K. libel law discussed

Though the U.S. and the U.K. are close allies, the two nations have starkly divergent views on the issue of libel and defamation — which has led to increasingly knotty legal problems for resolving disputes.

“This has turned into an international legal crisis,” declared author James Hirsin, one of the panelists at Monday night’s “Celebrity Justice and Media Globalization” program at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, sponsored by International Esq and Variety.

U.S. courts set a far higher standard for proof of defamation than their counterparts in the U.K. due to free speech protections requiring proof of malice. “If you’re going to have uninhibited free speech, you’re going to have to tolerate error,” noted Andrew Thomas, a First Amendment lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine.

British courts require defendants in libel cases to prove the truth of what’s been published. As a result, London courts have become increasingly attractive for high-profile cases such as that of Cameron Diaz, who won “substantial” libel damages in the U.K. from American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, over its claim that she had a “smooching session” with a married man.

“The right of a U.S. citizen to sue for defamation is really no different than the right to sue if you’re hurt in a traffic accident,” noted Paul Tweed, U.K. libel lawyer and senior partner in Johnson Solicitors. “The burden of proof is on the publisher.”

Monday’s program also examined battles over so-called libel tourism — the practice of filing libel suits in countries with weaker free speech protections than in the U.S. Saudi businessman Khalid Salim bin Mahfouz won such a suit in Britain over Rachel Ehrenfeld’s book “Funding Evil,” in which Ehrenfeld accused Mahfouz of funneling millions of dollars to Al Qaeda and Hamas.

Mahfouz also has filed libel suits against more than 30 other American publishers and authors. That’s led to the recent introduction in the House of the Free Speech Protection Act, which would prohibit U.S. courts from enforcing libel judgments issued in foreign courts against U.S. residents and also allow American authors and publishers to countersue if the material is protected by the First Amendment. 

Tweed asserted that such moves represent an unwarranted intrusion into the British system and argued that journalists have to be more careful about what they publish — particularly with the Internet obliterating borders between nations.

Variety Group president Neil Stiles concluded the discussion by contending that policymakers need to begin spelling out the definitions of journalists and publishers. “It’s become extremely hard to tell who is a journalist anymore,” he said.

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