Online libel: the American Way

Freedom is a virtue that very few possess

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Oh to be a journalist in America, where online reporters have the same protection against libel charges as their offline counterparts.

The New York Supreme Court decision today made this freedom-of-the-press right explicit, when it threw out a court case between the Bank of Mexico and Narconews.com, a site which investigates drug trafficking.

In defamation cases, American journalists have the backing of a Supreme Court ruling of 1964 which says they can only be found guilty of libel in cases of public importance "if their actions are deemed malicious", Wired News reports in a thorough piece on the Narconews case and its implications for American journalism.

Marvellous. It's very different in the UK, where Freedom of The Press is a romantic ideal, as opposed to a right codified in law.

Under English law, journalists are the "eyes and ears of the public"; they have no rights over and above other citizens when they commit words to print.

And almost uniquely in English law, in libel cases, the burden of proof lies with the defendant not the plaintiff: in other words the press must prove that it has not defamed the litigant.

There are all sorts of defences against defamation in the UK, but absence of malice is not one of them. Truth; justification; qualified privilege are useful defence strategies. But best of all is the horrible expense of conducting a libel case, which deters all but the very cross or very rich. ®

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