Tag: criminal libel

Great news: criminal libel case in France against Joe Weiler is dismissed

Journal Editor Wins Libel Case Over Negative Book Review

March 3, 2011, 1:49 pm

A journal editor who was sued in France for criminal libel because of a negative book review has won his case, he told The Chronicle today. Joseph H.H. Weiler, a professor of law at New York University, said that a French court had ruled against the complaint brought against him by Karin N. Calvo-Goller, a scholar in Israel. Ms. Calvo-Goller took issue with a critical review of one of her books on the Global Law Books Web site, which Mr. Weiler edits. 


Blasphemy from ancient Greece to modern Ireland

cover of Nash, Blasphemy in the Christian World, via OUP websiteEarlier this week, I had the great good fortune to attend an enjoyable lecture presented by the, Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin. It was

Blasphemy: Historical anachronism or modern crime?

by Professor David Nash, Department of History, Oxford Brookes University, UK. He is the author of Blasphemy in Modern Britain 1789-present (Ashgate Publishing, 1999 | Amazon) and Blasphemy in the Christian World (Oxford University Press, 2007 hbk; 2010 pbk | Amazon | cover left). His talk was in three parts: the historical context; the unhappy fit with current models and theories of human development; and the implications of taking blasphemy seriously again.

First, he used the historical context to illustrate the various reasons for longevity and adaptability of concepts of blasphemy. In ancient Greece, blasphemy consisted of speaking ill of the gods and of disturbing the peace. In early Christian dogma after the Council of Nicea in AD 325, it served to reinforce the virtues of orthodoxy. Medieval Christian Europe saw blasphemy as an element of heresy, but in the 13th century, blasphemy becomes decoupled from heresy, and it evolves into what Nash charaterised as the ‘passive blasphemy’ model, where the definition and enforcement of blasphemy is a matter for the State, seeking to eradicate states of mind and opinion that are dangerous to the community. For a member of the community to know that a blasphemy has taken place is to see a threat to the survival of the community; the individual is in peril from being in the presence of the blasphemer; and to permit it to go unpunished is to court divine retribution. (more…)

Birthday Times

Masthead of first edition of the Times, via the Times archive

The above image is the front page of the first ever Times newspaper, first published as the Universal Daily Register on 1 January 1785. From today’s Times Online:

The Times celebrates its 225th birthday

How a former bankrupt with a big idea started a feeble rumbling that became The Thunderer

On this day 225 years ago the very first issue of a newspaper that would soon be renamed The Times appeared on the streets of London. … its beginnings were, to put it mildly, inauspicious … Yet the paper did survive, and prosper, thanks in part to the energy and vision of its creator, John Walter, a former coal merchant, entrepreneur and Lloyd’s underwriter who had declared himself bankrupt after he was ruined by a combination of the American War of Independence and a Jamaican hurricane. …

In 1789 he was put on trial for libelling the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Cumberland. He refused to reveal his sources, and was sentenced to a year in Newgate Prison, fined £50 and ordered to stand in the pillory at Charing Cross for an hour. This last part of the sentence was lifted, although editors of The Times have occasionally been pilloried since. Once his sentence was completed, he started another, following a successful libel action by the Prince of Wales.

The last Irish case on criminal libel

Star logoYesterday’s Irish Times reminds me of an interesting High Court judgment handed down early in the Summer. It’s called Dennehy v Independent Star Ltd trading as The Irish Daily Star Newspaper [2009] IEHC 458 (28 May 2009) and it concerns an attempt to bring a prosecution for criminal libel. Section 8 of the Defamation Act, 1961 (also here) provides

No criminal prosecution shall be commenced against any proprietor, publisher, editor or any person responsible for the publication of a newspaper for any libel published therein without the order of a Judge of the High Court sitting in camera being first had and obtained, and every application for such order shall be made on notice to the person accused, who shall have an opportunity of being heard against the application.

When the Defamation Act, 2009 (pdf) comes into effect in the new year, section 4 will repeal the 1961 Act and section 35 will abolish the common law crime of criminal or defamatory libel (the UK is soon to follow this lead). So, the Dennehy is likely to be last Irish case concerning this ancient crime. But the case also looks to the future, as one of the arguments made on behalf of the applicants was founded upon the European Convention of Human Rights, and the reasons why that argument failed are quite striking. (more…)

FoE in the EHRLR

EHRLR cover, via ECHR BlogThe current issue of the European Human Rights Law Review ([2009] 3 EHRLR | table of contents (pdf) | hat tip ECHR blog) contains a wonderful piece by my colleague Dr Ewa Komorek entitled “Is Media Pluralism a Human Right? The European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe and the Issue of Media Pluralism” [2009] 3 EHRLR 395.

Here is the abstract (with added links):

The need for pluralist media stopped being purely a national concern a long time ago and thus it has for decades been subject to scrutiny by the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Media pluralism has always come to their agenda as a prerequisite for freedom of expression guarded by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. It is important to distinguish the two ‘faces’ of media pluralism: internal (which may also be called content pluralism or diversity) and external (or structural). This article focuses on television broadcasting and argues that while the Court of Human Rights has essentially been successful in safeguarding internal pluralism, the protection of structural pluralism proved more difficult to achieve by means of the Court’s case law. This prompted the Council of Europe to step in and attempt to fill the gap with regulatory proposals. The conclusion is that although there is still a need for a binding ex ante action at the European level aimed at safeguarding pluralism in this ever concentrating sector, the efforts of the Council of Europe and the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are vital for awareness raising and stimulating debate.

In Ewa’s view, therefore, media pluralism should be given a far stronger voice in European debates than it currently enjoys, and one way to achieve this would be to strength its status as a right not only in the Council of Europe but also in the EU. For example, Article 11(2) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that “the freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected”, and Ewa’s compelling analysis of the cognate Article 10 can go a long way towards giving full effect to this provision. But this is not the only interesting piece in the journal. Indeed, this issue is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of fascinating articles: (more…)

Blasphemy provisions clash with Constitution

Cover of Levy's book on Blasphemy, via the publishers' website.In today’s Irish Times, a piece by yours truly under the above headline:

Blasphemy provisions clash with Constitution

The President has very few unconstrained powers, and the Council of State is convened only rarely, but this evening they will all move centre stage, when the Council convenes to advise the President whether to refer two controversial Bills to the Supreme Court. Whatever she does about the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, 2009, she should certainly refer the blasphemy provisions of the Defamation Bill, 2006 …

Read all about it here (it’s a development of my argument here).

The cases I mention in the piece are:

  • the case against Gay News magazine (wikipedia) is Whitehouse v Lemon [1979] AC 617 (HL) (wikipedia);
  • the case against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses is R v Metropolitan Magistrate ex p Choudhury [1991] 1 QB 429;
  • the case against Jerry Springer – The Opera is R (on the application of Green) v The City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2007] EWHC 2785 (Admin) (05 December 2007);
  • the relevant decisions of the European Court of Human Rights include Wingrove v UK 17419/90 [1996] ECHR 60 (25 November 1996), and Klein v Slovakia 72208/01 [2006] ECHR 909 (31 October 2006); and
  • the case against the Sunday Independent for publishing the divorce referendum cartoon is Corway v Independent Newspapers [1999] 4 IR 485; [2000] 1 ILRM 426; [1999] IESC 5 (30 July 1999).
  • Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscene?

    Cover of first Penguin edition of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' via the Bristol University siteNo, at least so far as the law is concerned. But after its initial publication in 1928, it was not until the 1960s that litigation in the US and the UK allowed it to become generally available. An op-ed by Fred Kaplan in the today’s New York Times, entitled The Day Obscenity Became Art, (with added links) tells us that

    today is the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that overturned America’s obscenity laws, setting off an explosion of free speech — … The historic case began on May 15, 1959, when Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, sued the Post Office for confiscating copies of the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which had long been banned for its graphic sex scenes.

    … Mr. Rosset hired a lawyer named Charles Rembar, … [who] presented “Lady Chatterley” as a novel of ideas that inveighed against sex without love, the mechanization of industrial life and morbid hypocrisy. … On July 21, 1959, Judge Bryan ruled in favor of Grove Press and ordered the Post Office to lift all restrictions on sending copies of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” through the mail.

    That case was Grove Press v Christenberry 175 F.Supp. 488 (S.D.N.Y., 1959); it was upheld on appeal (at 276 F.2d 433 (2nd Cir., 1960) (Justitia | OpenJurist); and Robert McHenry on Britannica blog has also entertainingly marked the anniversary.

    Rembar wrote about his experiences defending this book and other controversial novels in The end of obscenity; the trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill (New York, Random House, 1968): Tropic of Cancer reached the Supreme Court in Grove Press v Gerstein 378 US 577 (1964), and Fanny Hill reached the same court in Memoirs v Massachusetts 383 US 413 (1966).

    When these cases were decided, the leading US Supreme Court decision on obscenity was the relatively conservative Roth v US 354 US 476 (1957), and these cases were decided within its confines: the value of Grove Press v Christenberry was that it demonstrated that the Roth standard did not preclude First Amendment protection to obscene speech, at least where that speech embodied ideas of redeeming social importance. It laid the foundations for cases like Grove Press v Gerstein, Jacobellis v Ohio 378 US 184 (1964) and Memoirs v Massachusetts. These, in turn, led to the far more progressive stance taken by the Supreme Court in Miller v California 413 US 15 (1973), which held that a work is obscene and can be regulated by a State where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The plaudits probably belong to all of these cases, and not merely to Grove Press v Christenberry, but it is still an important and entertaining case for all that.

    Moreover, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had also been the basis for a contemporary challenge to the UK’s Obscene Publications Act, 1959. It is an infamous trial, from the prosecution’s notorious and patronising rhetorical demand of the jury whether it was something they would want their wives or servants to read, to the cast of literary worthies who testified to the novel’s worth, to the jury’s acquittal on 2 November 1960. The following day, Penguin sold its entire first print run of 200,000 copies, and sold 2 million copies in six weeks. The Times has a wonderful collection of archive material about the case, the full papers from the trial are now available at Bristol University Library; Penguin have recently re-issued their classic account of the trial; and the BBC have made a marvellous drama (BBC | imdb | Times) of two fictional jurors’ experience.

    These were undoubtedly important developments, but I can’t help but fear that the days of such trials might come back again.

    Another twist in the tale of the Defamation Bill

    Áras an Uachtaráin = Residence of the President of Ireland, via the President's siteThe saga of the Defamation Bill, 2006 is not over yet. Article 26 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) allows the President, after consultation with Council of State, to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court for a determination of its constitutionality. President McAleese has chosen to convene the Council of State to advise her on the qustion of whether to refer not only the (controversial) Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, 2009 (an unsurprising move) but also the (equally controversial) blasphemy elements of the Defamation Bill, 2006 (which has come as a great surprise). (See Belfast Telegraph | BreakingNews.ie | Bock the Robber | ICCL | Irish Emigrant | Irish Independent | RTÉ news | Irish Times | PA | Slugger O’Toole. Update (18 July 2009): see also Irish Examiner | Irish Times here and here | Irish Independent | MediaWatchWatch).

    There have been 15 such references to date. If the Court holds that a Bill is unconstitutional, the President must decline to sign it; whilst if the Court decides a Bill is constitutional, the President must sign it into law, and the resulting Act is immune from constitutional challenge in the future. As my colleague Oran Doyle has pointed out, this means that

    … unlike in ordinary constitutional litigation, a decision made under the Article 26 reference procedure without consideration of a particular issue cannot be reopened when that issue is brought to light by another aggrieved litigant. … The tenor of the court’s reasoning in several references suggests that the court is more likely to hold legislation unconstitutional when the effect of its decision is absolute immunity for legislation considered only in the abstract.

    Admittedly, the reference procedure is imperfect (see, eg, Niamh Howlin “Shortcomings and anomalies: Aspects of Article 26” (2005) Irish Student Law Review 26 (pdf)), but if it means that the odds are in favour of striking down the blapshemy provisions of the Defamation Bill, then bring it on!

    The last sentence of Article 40.6.1(i) of the Constitution provides that the publication or utterance of blasphemous material shall be an offence. In Corway v Independent Newspapers [1999] 4 IR 484 (SC), the Supreme Court declined to give any effect to the constitutional clause in the absence of a statutory provision, but that decision will be of little help in any Article 26 reference. Rather more recently, in R (on the application of Green) v The City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2007] EWHC 2785 (Admin) (05 December 2007) (discussed on this blog at the time), a Divisional Court of the English High Court held that it was the prevention of imminent public disorder probably which ensured the compatibility of the English common law offence of blasphemous libel with Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights:

    [17] … The Article 10(2) basis for the crime of blasphemous libel is best found, as it seems to us, in the risk of disorder amongst, and damage to, the community generally.

    The key question will be whether the influence of the Convention will mean that the Court will take a similar approach to the Constitution. Let us assume that it will. Section 36 of the Bill provides that

    (2) … a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—
    (a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive 10 or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and
    (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

    (3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

    Subsection (3) is a welcome saver, but the main question will be whether subsection (2) is constitutional. There is a large gulf between the outrage envisage by the subsection and the risk of public disorder envisaged by Green. If that case is right, then this provision must be questionable under the Convention; and if a similar approach is taken under the Constitution, then this provision must also be of dubious constitutionality. I will therefore await with great interest both the President’s decision and any subsequent decision of the Supreme Court. Of course, even if she decides not to refer either Bill, a constitutional challenge is likely the first time any of the controversial provisions are invoked. Either way, therefore, the blasphemy provisions of the Defamation Bill will get their day in court.