Legal observers have noted for some time that the laws governing defamation in the United Kingdom are far more plaintiff-friendly than similar laws in the U.S. In the U.S., anyone claiming they were libeled has to prove that the allegedly libelous statements were false. But in the U.K., the burden of proof is reversed: the defendant in a libel suit has to prove that the statements they made were true. This creates a serious hazard to free speech: rich, litigious individuals can file lawsuits and win just by prolonging the court battle until the other side runs out of money to fight, at which point they instantly lose – and then must pay damages and court costs.
This is precisely the strategy that thin-skinned billionaires and powerful business interests, many of them not even based in the U.K., have been using to shut down anyone who criticizes them. It’s become so common, it’s acquired a name: “libel tourism”. Most infamously, the Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz sued journalist Rachel Ehrenfeld in the U.K. courts for her book Funding Evil, which alleged that bin Mahfouz financially supported Muslim terrorist groups – this even though Ehrenfeld doesn’t live in the U.K. and her book wasn’t published there. Another example is the case of Simon Singh, a science journalist who wrote an editorial saying that there was no evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic – and was promptly sued by the British Chiropractic Association. That case is still ongoing and has already cost Singh tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours defending himself.
And now, the U.K.’s libel laws are being invoked yet again in what promises to be their most outrageous and absurd application so far. Atheists might have guessed that this was coming:
A Saudi Arabian lawyer has threatened to use British courts to overturn a Danish free speech ruling by bringing a defamation case over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that depicted Islam’s founder as a terrorist.
Faisal Yamani, a Jeddah based lawyer, is planning to take a case to London’s libel courts on behalf of over 90,000 descendants of Mohammed who have claimed that the drawings have defamed them and the Islamic faith.
…Mr Yamani demanded last year that 11 Danish newspapers remove all cartoon images of Mohammed from their websites and issue front page apologies along with promises that the images would never be printed again.
But even under the U.K.’s plaintiff-friendly defamation laws, this suit looks even less meritorious than its predecessors. First of all, on what basis does anyone assert the right to sue on Mohammed’s behalf? Can a many-centuries-dead person be libeled? And what “factual statement” was made by these drawings that the plaintiffs claim to be defamatory?
But whatever legal issues are raised by this lawsuit, the question of its merit is irrelevant. Like all libel tourism, its purpose isn’t to prevail on the merits, but to intimidate and harass media organizations with protracted, expensive litigation and the threat of a catastrophic judgment, thus chilling their speech and making them afraid to offend any deep-pocketed individual. Whether it’s pseudoscience groups protecting their cash cow from scientists’ criticism or the perpetually aggrieved Muslim mob and their petulant demand that no one be allowed to express any opinion they disapprove of, the strategy is the same, and the result is too often the same as well.
America has this problem too of course, with so-called SLAPP lawsuits – but in our system, with the burden of proof the right way round, it’s much more difficult for cults and corporations to succeed in silencing their critics. Britain’s libel laws, on the other hand, are far too easily abused by those who flee from criticism and avoid open debate – but eagerly use thuggery and coercion to shut down their opposition if given the chance.
Fortunately, the U.K. has seen the rise of a broad coalition seeking to overhaul the libel tourism laws and put the country back on a more rational footing. But too much damage has already been done, and more is being done, so reform can’t come soon enough. If you live in Great Britain, contact your MP and tell them to support this effort! We need to take action before any more scientists, atheists or freethinkers are silenced by the allies of corruption, censorship and superstition.