On Libel And The Law, U.S. And U.K. Go Separate Ways : Parallels An HBO documentary about Scientology, Going Clear, won't be released in Britain. Neither will the book on which it's based. That's because British and U.S. free speech protections are very different.
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On Libel And The Law, U.S. And U.K. Go Separate Ways

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On Libel And The Law, U.S. And U.K. Go Separate Ways

On Libel And The Law, U.S. And U.K. Go Separate Ways

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United States and the United Kingdom stand shoulder-to-shoulder on most issues. Yet, when it comes to free speech, the two countries have some differences. Britain does not have the same protections as the U.S., so best-sellers in America are sometimes never released in the UK. This issue has driven a wedge between the two countries, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from London.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Libel tourism is when people bring a court case in a country of their choice where they are most likely to win. Rachel Ehrenfeld never set out to become the face of this issue.

RACHEL EHRENFELD: No, I didn't set out to do it. I was - I just sent out to write the truth, to expose those who funded terrorism.

SHAPIRO: Ehrenfeld runs a think tank called the American Center for Democracy. In 2003, she wrote a book called "Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed And How To Stop It." She accused a wealthy Saudi businessman of funding al-Qaida, and the businessman sued her for libel in a British court.

EHRENFELD: I did not live England. I do not live in England. The book was not published there, so why not come and sue me in the United States, right?

SHAPIRO: The reason is simple.

JENNY AFIA: English laws are much more favorable for someone looking to protect their reputation.

SHAPIRO: Jenny Afia is an attorney who often represents people who say they've been libeled. Free-speech lawyers agree with her assessment, though they spin the situation differently. Mark Stephens represents a lot of media companies in the UK.

MARK STEPHENS: Crooks and brigands from around the world come here to launder their reputations where they couldn't get exculpation in either their home country or indeed in the United States of America.

SHAPIRO: In U.S. courts, the burden of proof rests with the person who says he has been libeled. In British courts, the author or journalist has the burden of proof, and typically loses, says Stephens.

STEPHENS: So you've got the rich and powerful shutting down and chilling speech which is critical of them.

SHAPIRO: When Rachel Ehrenfeld was sued in England, she didn't show, up and the court issued a default judgment against her.

EHRENFELD: The court ordered that I would destroy the book in addition to the fine.

SHAPIRO: The fine was around a quarter million dollars. Typically, a U.S. court would enforce that ruling. But in this case, something extraordinary happened. The New York Legislature took up the cause, and then the U.S. Congress acted on it. Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen spoke on the House floor about the bill known as the Speech Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONGRESSMAN STEVE COHEN: While we generally share a proud common law legal tradition with the United Kingdom, it is also true the United Kingdom has laws that disfavor speech critical of public officials and public figures, contrary to our own constitutional tradition.

SHAPIRO: The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously, and President Obama signed it into law in 2010. It prevents U.S. courts from enforcing British libel rulings. Privacy lawyer Jenny Afia in London couldn't believe it.

AFIA: We were quite shocked because it was sort of raised as a national threat to U.S. constitutional issues, which as an ally was quite shocking to hear.

SHAPIRO: She thinks British laws strike the right balance. So while Congress has provided a shield to American writers in the U.S., for many others, the threat of lawsuits remains real. Peter Noorlander runs the Media Legal Defense Initiative, a global nonprofit organization based in London.

PETER NOORLANDER: We help media outlets from places like Zambia or Nigeria, exiled media that have fled their own countries because of the repressive regimes and circumstances. And they come to UK and other places in Europe and then they get pursued here for libel cases.

SHAPIRO: The UK recently changed its libel laws, eliminating some of the worst potential for abuses. But the changes are not enough to persuade many to plunge back into these waters. Cambridge University Press last year said it would not release a book about Russian President Vladimir Putin in the UK for fear of lawsuits. The publisher wrote a letter to the book's author saying even if the Press was ultimately successful in defending such a lawsuit, the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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