It’s commonly believed that, compared with other countries, the U.S. enjoys an exceptional measure of freedom of the press and, closely allied to it, exceptionally liberal libel laws. The comparison with Britain is particularly marked, and the Index on Censorship and English PEN have launched a libel-reform campaign that describes British libel law as “a global disgrace” and refers glowingly to American freedoms.
The Adam Smith Institute has also weighed in, observing that “English libel laws are used by the rich and influential to deflect attention, while discouraging serious journalism and the spread of ideas to the UK.” American Rachel Ehrenfeld, whose 2003 book, Funding Evil, was targeted by a Saudi critic, would likely agree, as would the American authors of the 2007 Alms for Jihad, published by the Cambridge University Press.
But perhaps we in the U.S. should stop patting ourselves on the back. Last month, the Centre for Social Cohesion in Britain produced a well-documented study of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Islamist ideology and strategy. The report details HuT’s activities outside and, especially, inside Britain and documents the disturbing extent to which it has been accepted as a legitimate partner for engagement by mainstream British political institutions. The study is available through CSC: notably, Britain’s strict libel laws did not prevent it from being published there.
It did not, though, get much press in the U.S. That may be because PR Newswire, the CSC’s press agency, refused to carry a news release announcing the report, stating — in e-mails I have read — that its U.S. office would “reject the release based on its inflammatory content” and that it owed a “a duty of care to the newswire providers we work with.” The U.S. office weighed in, too, with a statement that “due to the unsubstantiated allegations of criminal activities and inflammatory language,” they would not be able to run the release.
“Unsubstantiated” is a curious word to describe a report of more than 100 pages and 600 footnotes with extensive quotations from original sources. But more broadly, this is precisely the problem that bedevils Britain: the real damage done by its libel laws is not caused so much by the courtroom challenges to authors but by the fear the laws create among publishers that they may be next.
In the British context, it is at least encouraging that Justice Secretary Jack Straw is now publicly committed to libel reform, though his observation that the danger derives mostly from lawsuits by “big corporations” ignores who has done most of the suing so far. But the remedy when press agencies in the U.S. refuse to run news releases that might anger jihadis is less clear: we already have the First Amendment; yet in this instance, we appear to be less able than Britain to bear the burden of publishing on terrorism.