So, this has just come to my attention: In Great Britain, libel law is really really expensive to contest, and requires the person being accused to prove it wasn’t libel. So that’s pretty awful. But what makes it actually relevant to my own interests is that apparently you can be sued in British courts no matter where or how you published your possibly libelous work.
For those of you who don’t know what “libel” is, it is basically “shit-talking”. Now, if I were to shit-talk a public figure, generally that’s protected speech in the US. After all, a public figure is known to millions and probably has more than the capacity to defend themselves from a statement of ill intent by some random person from Podunkville. It only becomes an issue when said shit-talkery actually negatively impacts the other person or business interest. So for instance, I can say “Coke tastes bad” in practically any form I wish. But saying “Coca-Cola definitely actually contains rat poison in every tenth bottle” and then printing it in every newspaper in the US would probably cross the line.
The British go a bit farther. Like, they go basically to the place on the map where things like “here be monsters” and “what the fuck are you thinking” are scribbled in the margins. There’s the whole aformentioned “Guilty until proven innocent” thing, which is a big red flag to start with. But it gets pretty steadily worse. Cases are brought to court in Britain on the flimsiest of causes. If literally a single copy of your book/article/paper has been sold anywhere in Britain, it is likely that whatever rich person you pissed off will be suing you there. And you’ll probably be confused as to why these funny-accented people in wigs aren’t responding to your Jack McCoy voice. There is no Jack McCoy in Britain, man. That’s why British Law & Order is so weird. The great part is, even if you have your day in court and win, you might have to leverage yourself deep into debt. The average libel case takes years to resolve, as well as millions of dollars.
It’s been used to great effect by a variety of con-men who realized that you can’t really prove that Deep Tissue Chiropractic Aqua-Massage doesn’t do anything, and you need to pay for that accusation.
Now why this has a bit of personal relevance to me is that this spectacular wonderland of horrifically unfair legal process is now open not just to people who have published works that might once have flown over Britain. See, the law hasn’t really changed since before the internet. Say, for instance, I write an article called “The Queen Isn’t Very Great At All”. Now, if I press “publish” to the right of me here, and this is readable in Britain… does that count as publishing a work in Britain? Well, yeah. According to the batshit legal process currently in place, it does. In fact, writing any comment on the internet counts. And you might be thinking “oh but, that’s insane. If yankeefan56 posts ‘Wal-mart is a tool of our lizard overseers, death to the machine!’ it is pretty obviously not libelous. No one listens to him!” Well, first of all apologize to yankeefan56. We appreciate all of our commenters here at Trouble Thinking and that crossed the line. Second of all, remember that part about “guilty until proven innocent”. If someone with money wants to make your life hell, you can be dragged into court over the most inane forum post, and be required to mount a defense and pay legal fees.
I am honestly not joking, from the site libelreform.org:
Lawyers for the football club and seven of its directors launched legal action against the proprietors of an independent Sheffield Wednesday Football Club supporters website, Owlstalk.co.uk, over 11 messages about the club’s board and management, which had been posted on the site’s discussion board. The site is freely accessible, but those who post on it have to register their details, and give themselves a pseudonym by which they are then known.
In a separate case, supporter Nigel Short received warning letters from the club over comments he made on Owlstalk.co.uk in February 2006. The club rejected Short’s offer of an apology, and pursued him for damages. Short was able to recruit George Davies Solicitors to fight his case, and eventually the club backed down, paying his legal costs. However, Short suffered two years of legal wrangling, during which time he lived in fear of bankruptcy.
You read that right. A couple of fans shit-talking about the losing streak their favorite team was on got sued by the management because that is how you solve a PR problem, dammit. People’s lives were upended because they had posted the equivalent of “Haha, man do the pats blow this year.” on a public site under a pseudonym.
Basically what I am saying is: if you are in Britain and can do anything at all to help reform your completely insane local practices, do it. If you are not currently a major player in the British legal system, then go to libelreform.org and put your name on the list. Yes, internet petitioning is probably useless, but it also can’t hurt. At the least read up on the facts of the matter so that you can complain about the issue to any person with a funny accent you meet.