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March 23, 2005
Britain Stakes Further Claim For Speech Jurisdiction

Earlier, I wrote about Sheikh Mahfouz and his libel case in Britain against Rachel Ehrenfeld for a book she never published outside the United States. Mahfouz won a default judgment against Ehrenfeld when she refused to acknowledge English jurisdiction for the case. Now British courts have laid claim to the entire Internet for libel and slander cases and Arnold Schwarzenegger has become their first target:

Schwarzenegger, who is now governor of California, had challenged a ruling by a senior High Court official giving Anna Richardson permission to serve proceedings on him out of the jurisdiction.

The decision today, by Mr Justice Eady, has cleared the way for a libel trial in London sometime this year.

Miss Richardson alleges she was libelled by Schwarzenegger and two campaign workers in an October 2003 article in The Los Angeles Times, which also appeared on the internet.

The article ran in the Los Angeles Times, which publishes within the United States, about a political race that involved the state of California and covered political topics. The LAT does not publish in the United Kingdom and only is available through the Internet to British readers. However, the plaintiff filed her case in Britain because defendants bear the burden of proof in the UK, not the plaintiffs, and it becomes much easier to win large judgments against media outlets.

Before people begin discounting this development with the attitude that the Times deserves a spanking over its atrocious recall-election coverage, consider what British courts have done. They now claim that anything which appears on the internet falls within their jurisdiction and can be adjudicated by British courts using British legal standards. That will apply to bloggers as well. If we start criticizing Tony Blair, for instance, he may well be able to file suit against us in London instead of the United States. That means our own due process will evaporate, as well as our First Amendment protections and the presumption of innocence we take for granted.

Not only does this bode ominously for free speech, it constitutes an unacceptable assault on American sovereignty. Had the LA Times published specifically in Britain -- say, with a paper version disseminated in London -- then they have to assume the liabilities that involves. However, simply making their editions available on the Internet does not give the UK the right to override their right to free speech and the protections of American legal code and custom.

While I'm no fan of the LA Times, in this case we'd better start speaking out against this encroachment before it (a) discourages media outlets from publishing to the Internet, and (b) starts getting applied to bloggers. The State Department should send a strong message to the United Kingdom explaining that America will not tolerate an infringement on our sovereignty and our open speech.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 23, 2005 12:46 PM

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