Espionage is a serious business: freedom of speech and restitutionary remedies

Cover of 'Decent Interval' by Frank Snepp, via his siteOver sixty years ago, the Faculty of Laws at University College London established the Current Legal Problems lecture series and accompanying annual volume as a major reference point for a broad range of legal scholarship opinion, theory, methodology, and subject matter, with an emphasis upon contemporary developments of law. The lectures are held at the Faculty of Law, Bentham House, Endsleigh Gardens, London WC1 from 6-7pm; they are open to the public and free of charge. This week‘s current legal issue is:

Spies Like Us? Frank Snepp and George Blake: Freedom of Speech and Restitutionary Remedies

“Espionage is a serious business” sang a moderately famous Irish pop singer of the 1980s. And so it is. It can be even more of a business when former spies seek to publish their memoirs, and things can get very serious indeed if they fail to seek the clearance of their former spymasters in advance. The decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States in Snepp v US 444 US 507 (1980) and of the House of Lords in AG v Blake [2001] 1 AC 268; [2000] UKHL 45 (27 July 2000) make a fascinating pair of cases in which former spies (unsuccessfully) argued that a restitutionary remedy against uncleared publication of their memoirs infringed their speech rights.

The paper will seek to do three things. First, it will present a thorough analysis of the stories behind the decisions. How the opinion for the Court in Snepp evolved is a fascinating tale in its own right; so too are many elements of the Blake saga, not least the question of where the Snepp-like remedy in that case actually came from. So, the paper will begin with these stories, tales and sagas.

Second, it will look at the legitimacy of the restitutionary remedies in the cases in their own terms, and to suggest in particular that whilst there may be some legitimacy to the remedy announced in Blake, there is none for that announced in Snepp. Working out quite why this was so will help to clarify two difficult areas in the law of restitution: how, if at all, the law of restitution can justify awarding restitutionary damages for breach of contract, and proprietary remedies generally.

Third, it will measure the remedies awarded in Blake and Snepp against applicable speech standards (the First Amendment to the US Constitution and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, respectively), and to suggest in particular that the speech analyses in both cases were sadly lacking. Working out quite why this was so will help to clarify a difficult area of free speech law: how, if at all, common law and equitable doctrines and remedies can be made subject to constitutional speech standards.