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Freedom of expression under attack
by Damian J. Penny
Britain's plaintiff-friendly libel laws are so infamous, they've even inspired a gag on South Park. In the notorious "Trapped in the closet" episode, young Stan Marsh — thought to be the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — announces that the "religion" is a giant scam. Scientologist Tom Cruise, furious at this gross insult to his faith, declares, "I'll sue you — in England!" The real-life punch line: "Trapped in the closet" did not air on British television, because of the very real possibility that Cruise would successfully sue any broadcaster who tried.
A 2002 Vanity Fair article about legendary New York restaurant Elaine's was neither written by a Brit nor published in Britain, but that didn't stop film director Roman Polanski from successfully suing the magazine for an allegedly defamatory anecdote included in the piece. (Supposedly, he was trying to pick up women at Elaine's shortly after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. A jury found that this was devastating to Polanski's reputation, which had been completely unsullied until the magazine came out.)
And then there's Saudi banker Khalid bin Mahfouz, who used the British courts to sue American author Rachel Ehrenfeld over allegations in her book about terrorism financing, which had never been published in Britain. Or Holocaust-denying "historian" David Irving, who sued U.S. author Deborah Lipstadt for being labelled a Holocaust denier in one of her American-published books. Irving lost (in a court battle recounted in Lipstadt's excellent book History on Trial) but it's damning enough that the British legal system allowed him to think he had a case.
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