The Corner

Libel and Political Speech

Can libel charges, or the threat of libel charges, be used to chill free speech? You bet they can. Barack Obama’s latest tactics are all-too-reminiscent of Britain’s libel tourism phenomenon, and of related efforts to use British libel law to censor political speech. In “Not Without a Fight,” I survey the libel tourism phenomenon, link it to the Mark Steyn case (See Mark’s comments below in “Yes, we ban,) and also mention the famous British “McLibel” case, in which McDonald’s restaurant attempted to use Britain’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws to silence anti-McDonald’s protestors. (You can view a fascinating ten-minute preview of an influential documentary about this case, “McLibel: Two Worlds Collide,” here. The British McDonald’s protestors are far on the left. Yet we must support their freedom as if it were our own…because ultimately, it is.

Can it happen here? Thanks to the Obama campaign, it already is happening.  And don’t think American libel law, so much less plaintiff-friendly than British libel law, gives us a free pass. At the counterterrorism blog, Jeffrey Breinholt explains how even American libel laws can be used to intimidate and silence speech. As I point out in “Not Without a Fight,” what really protects free speech here in the United States is the value we place upon it, and the shame we would feel handling criticism by way of law suits. When it comes to silencing critics, on the other hand, the Obama campaign appears to have no shame. That augers poorly for the culture of free exchange. As Tocqueville reminds us, habits of the heart, even more than the law itself, stand as our most important protections against tyranny. If Obama continues to break one free-speech taboo after another, the law will surely follow.

So continued media silence on Obama’s intimidation tactics threatens not only the fairness of this election, but press freedom itself. Yet to defend the freedom of the right as if it were their own is something our left-leaning press has forgotten how to do.


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