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U.K. exports censorious libel laws

Just in time for Banned Books Week, which runs until Oct. 6, The New York Times reports how a loophole in English law, combined with the globalized booktrade, may have a deleterious effect on freedom of speech outside of U.K. borders.

At the centre of the controversy is Saudi banker and businessman Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz, who wrangled an apology and undisclosed damages from Cambridge University Press for publishing Alms for Jihad, which alleges that bin Mahfouz is an Al Qaeda financier. Bin Mahfouz also recently won damages from U.K. publisher Pluto Press, U.S. author Rachel Ehrenfeld, and the newspaper The Mail on Sunday for making similar allegations.

The concern is that stringent libel laws in the U.K., where the burden of proof falls on the defendant, will affect foreign publishers, since, as the article points out, English libel law technically applies not just to U.K. titles, but to all books on sale in the U.K.:

Today, any book bought online in England, even one published exclusively in another country, can ostensibly be subject to English libel law. As a result, publishers and booksellers are increasingly concerned about “libel tourism”: foreigners suing other foreigners in England or elsewhere, and using those judgments to intimidate authors in other countries…

Incidently, the article points out that one of the original “libel tourists” may be Roman Polanski, who in 2005 used the English courts to sue Vanity Fair, which published allegedly slanderous comments by former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham.