U.K. to Enact Libel Reform Law
Britain’s archaic libel laws (not officially reformed since 1843!) have long been exploited by those seeking to chill the free speech rights of their targets or cash in on a jurisdiction known for both low legal standards for defamation, and large jury verdicts. This recently led the U.S. to enact the SPEECH Act, which bans domestication of foreign judgments based on speech that would not have been defamatory under U.S. law; enactment of this law was widely considered an embarrassment for the U.K. Now it seems the British have acted, with the Queen herself (if you can believe it) announcing that a bill would be enacted to curb such abusive suits and tighten the requirements for libel under British law.
Although the text of the bill will not be available until Friday, the outlines of the reform have been made known, and it is interesting to see how another country is addressing the problem of abusive suits aimed at chilling free speech. For example, a major component of the law will be an early screening procedure — not unlike an anti-SLAPP motion in concept — that will require the plaintiff (or I believe “claimant” in British parlance) to show serious harm arising from the libelous statements before the lawsuit may commence.
The law will also enact broad protections for speech on matters of public interest (the heart of First Amendment free speech protection here in the U.S.), as well as immunity for websites that republish or link to the defamatory statements of others (as we have here under federal law, CDA section 230 [see bottom of page linked; text of the statute here]).
More troubling is the plan to include in the law’s provisions a notice-and-takedown procedure for defamatory statements, apparently designed to avoid the necessity of litigation by requiring that a claimant give notice to a website of the allegedly libelous statements and an opportunity to remove them before taking anyone to court. This might not be unlike the DMCA takedown notice procedure provided for copyright holders under U.S. law. Unfortunately, that procedure has become widely abused in very SLAPP-like ways. One of the stories linked seems to state that the notice-and-takedown procedure would involve some judicial oversight, but it would likely still be subject to abuse.
On the whole, though, it is good to see our neighbors across the pond acting to protect free speech. Now if only the U.S. government would act on federal anti-SLAPP legislation to further strengthen our First Amendment rights…