Peter Hoskin

Obama defeats our shameful libel laws

Obama defeats our shameful libel laws
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Here's one divergence between the US and the UK where we can all get behind our American brethren. Yesterday, Barack Obama signed into law a provision blocking his country's thinkers and writers from foreign libel laws. The target is "libel tourism," by which complainants skip around the First Amendment by taking their cases to less conscientious countries. And by "less conscientious countries," I mean, erm, here.        

As various organisations have documented, not least the Index on Censorship, the libel laws in this country are a joke – and a pernicious one at that. Various dodgy figures have exploited them to effectively silence publications and individuals who, regardless of the facts of the case, face hefty pay-outs unless they submit. And others, one suspects, have been emboldened by just how easy it is. Would Alan Sugar, for instance, have threatened Quentin Letts if our libel laws weren't so heavily weighted against the media? Would Charlie Whelan have pressured The Spectator? I doubt it. And, alas, the upshot of all this is a casual erosion of freedom of speech.

Happily, the coalition is resolved to reform the country's libel laws. This latest sign of just how those laws are regarded internationally should remind them how important – and necessary – that effort is.