U.S. Media Running Afoul of British Libel Laws

Posted on November 12, 2009

Libel laws are much stricter in Great Britain than they are in the U.S. and there no constitutional right to free speech. This puts U.S. newspapers in legal jeopardy when they sell U.S. publications, such as The New York Times, in Britain. Many expatriates read major U.S. newspapers, which are readily available in London. But now the newspapers are getting ready to pull out of Great Britain, saying that the hassle and lawsuit threats aren't worth the readership. They are also going to block access to their websites by the British in order to comply with the libel laws.

The Guardian reports that a memorandum submitted to a Commons select committee states: "Leading US newspapers are actively considering abandoning the supply of the 200-odd copies they make available for sale in London -- mainly to Americans who want full details of their local news and sport. They do not make profits out of these minimal and casual sales and they can no longer risk losing millions of dollars in a libel action which they would never face under US law. Does the UK really want to be seen as the only country in Europe -- indeed in the world -- where important US papers cannot be obtained in print form?"

It also says, "The consequences of making media organisations liable for putting articles -- perfectly lawful by the law of their own domicile -- on websites which are occasionally accessed in England should be obvious. The cost of fighting libel actions may lead internet publishers to build 'fire walls' against access from the UK, in order to avoid such actions."

This is yet another instance of globalization leading to difficult legal issues. Articles that regularly appear in The Washington Post would get the newspaper sued if it were published by a British newspaper. But blocking British access to American newspaper sites seems an absurd outcome of these laws. But legally we don't see any way around it without fundamentally changing British libel laws. When there is no constitutional right to freedom of speech, it does make thinks difficult for journalists, authors and publishers.

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