Less of an Ass

PARIS – “If the law supposes that,” says Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, “the law is a ass – a idiot.” For decades, Britain’s libel laws had been living down to Mr. Bumble’s expectations. But freedom of expression worldwide received a boost – and Britain’s reputation for commonsense was somewhat restored – in April, when Parliament adopted legislation revising the country’s libel law.

Previously, corporations and individuals all over the world who claimed that they had been defamed – even if those suing or those who allegedly defamed them had little or no connection to the United Kingdom – would bring lawsuits for libel in the British courts. The practice was widely known as “libel tourism.”

Many plaintiffs who brought such lawsuits – Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, Arab princes, African dictators, and unscrupulous bosses – had little chance to prevail. But the point was not to win. Often, their targets had much fewer resources, which meant that a libel suit requiring both sides to spend substantial amounts could be effective in silencing critics even if it did not succeed. Within the United Kingdom itself, the law meant that many important issues could not be fully debated.

The passage of libel reform is attributable to a campaign launched more than three years ago by three organizations: English PEN, a writers association; Index on Censorship, a bimonthly journal that has monitored censorship worldwide and published the works of censored writers for the past four decades; and Sense About Science, an organization that promotes scientific knowledge and understanding. The targeting of scientific journals and scientists for exposing charlatans was a leading factor in generating public support for reform of the UK’s libel law.