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the Irish for rights

Why are legislators so loath to repeal criminal libel provisions?

Article XIX logo, via their site.Article XIX, the Global Campaign for Freedom of Expression, is an international human rights organisation which defends and promotes freedom of expression and access to information worldwide. Defamation is one of the Global Issues on which they focus. Indeed, their 2000 Defining Defamation report (pdf) seeks to set out an appropriate balance between the human right to freedom of expression and the need to protect individual reputations. Principle 4 of this document, concerning criminal defamation, provides

(a) All criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws. Steps should be taken, in those States which still have criminal defamation laws in place, to progressively implement this Principle.

Article XIX defamation map, via their siteUnsurprisingly, therefore, they have this week published an overview of worldwide defamation trends, which they have enlivened with interactive maps of applicable legislation and punishments. They simply record that, for both Ireland and the UK, there are civil and criminal sanctions for defamation. But, in a parallel development, they have lobbied (letter | press release (both pdfs)) the UK government to accept an amendment of the Coroners and Justice Bill 2008 put down by Dr Evan Harris, MP which would abolish criminal libel in the UK. [Update: see also Index on Censorship here and here] Harris told the Times:

Seditious libel and criminal defamation laws are a stain on our legal system and a terrible example to set in a world where free expression is so often restricted and oppressed. Parliament should sieze this chance to get rid of them.

In the same article, Geoffrey Robertson QC said

These laws have an inglorious history. They were deployed by the King’s lick-spittle judges in the Star Chamber to torture puritans, and later used against John Wilkes and Tom Paine’s publishers. Their continuing existence serves only to provide an excuse for modern despots when they jail their critics – they always claim that they are merely using laws that are also on the UK statute book. It is time to expunge them.

A wonderful discussion of these cases is provided by Lord Walker’s Bentham Club Presidential Address on Security, Freedom of Speech and Criminal Justice in the age of Pitt, Burke and Fox (pdf).

Consequently, the amendment proposed by Harris simply provided:

The offences of sedition and seditious libel under the common law of England and Wales are abolished.

However, the House of Commons website records that the amendment was not taken during the debate. This is a pity, and I hope that it can be taken when the Bill is debated again. I have already blogged extensively about a similar Irish effort (here, here, here, here, here and here) in Part 5 of the still-delayed Defamation Bill, 2006. Whatever happened to that? Indeed, as the title question asks: why are legislators so loath to repeal criminal libel provisions?

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5 Responses to “Why are legislators so loath to repeal criminal libel provisions?”

  1. […] « Why are legislators so loath to repeal criminal libel provisions? Mar 26 2009 […]

  2. […] comments below, this section has been removed from the Bill]. In the United Kingdom, Evan Harris MP has been working to achieve the same end. Writing at Index on Censorship yesterday, he explained his efforts: Seditious libel law is a […]

  3. damien says:

    hi just a comment on getting rid of our changing our bill…..1 they should stay because as it states in it … they must have proper information on the person before it gets published …..so therfore if they did it would give no reason for people to take libil actions against them ….they should uphold there part off the bill and not just jump straiaht in with there storys and where do they get there info>If we were to scrap our bill now what will the world come to?…the world has gone mad sence al the laws have started changing i say put them al back and keep them as they were would the jernos like us to look into there privite lives and tell every1 infront them there lyers in what they write??>..and so on and so on leave the laws and get ride of the white coller crime if any thing ….punish the harsh

  4. Eoin says:

    Thanks Damien. I find it very hard to follow your argument, but I’m glad you stopped by and took the time to comment.

  5. […] little more than a month ago, I wondered why legislators are so loath to repeal criminal libel provisions. However, in a subsequent post, I […]

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

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