Can We Say This?

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A campaign to reform English libel laws will be launched today by two writers’ organisations, Index on Censorship and English PEN.

An inquiry commissioned by the two bodies make some useful, if unsurprising, recommendations.

It wants parliament to

  • Shift the burden of proof in defamation to the claimant so that the publisher is no longer required to establish a defence;
  • Require claims to be brought within a year of first publication, not the most recent occasion that material was downloaded from the internet;
  • Reform the use of “no-win, no-fee” conditional fee agreements to reduce costs payable by unsuccessful defendants; and
  • Prevent corporate bodies from suing unless they can prove malice

Such action, the campaigners say, would restore the balance between free speech and reputation.

Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said:

Our libel laws allow people accused of funding terrorism or dumping toxic waste in Africa to silence their critics whilst “super-injunctions” stop the public from even knowing that such allegations exist. We need to reform our libel laws now, and that’s why we’re launching a national campaign to persuade our politicians to do so.

John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship, added:

If we don’t act we’re at risk of becoming a global pariah. There are US States who view English libel law as so damaging to free speech they have passed laws to effectively block the decisions of English judges. Our report is an important milestone in modernising our antiquated and chilling approach to free expression.

Joshua Rozenberg commented:

            I agree.