Libel reform negotiations in the United Kingdom seem to be going as well as the NHL lockout talks. Not only have both debates dragged on forever, but in both situations, one day it’s *this,* and the next day it’s *that.* At the risk of sounding defeatist, I wouldn’t accuse another of hyperbole for predicting that (a) significant defamation reform won’t be passed in the UK or (b) the NHL as we know it will not return.
In the latest turn of events, the Joint Committee on Human Rights shared their opinion, with British officials, about online libel provisions included in the UK defamation reform draft. In short, the committee thinks the law, if passed as is, will significantly “chill” free speech in the country. Specifically, critics feel the current wording forces website operators to remove material that may not be libelous.
Without a doubt, the Lord McAlpine scandal has had an impact on libel reform discussions in the UK. For better or worse, proponents can point to a substantial scandal as an example of the perils of “weak online libel laws.”
If the new online libel laws are approved, Social media companies would be forced to hand over the names of “trolls” if the “victim” asks for it. In other words, anonymous free speech would no longer exist in the United Kingdom. (Update: This is more true than you think. Read more here.)
People who take umbrage with the draft’s present language insist “there should be a higher threshold put in place before material has to be removed.” Those in favor of the new online libel provisions argue that removing salacious material will reduce the number of lawsuits against website operators. In essence: if you simply hinder free speech from the beginning, there will be fewer free speech lawsuits.
Who knows what twists and turns lie ahead. As was augured earlier, it probably will be a long time before any significant changes are made to libel laws in the United Kingdom (Update: Defamation Act of 2013 went into effect on January 1, 2014). But from the sounds of it, the country is grooming the next generation to keep libel offline. According to reports, 9th graders at the Taunton School in Somerset will have to take a class on cyberbullying, online privacy, in addition to media and Internet libel.
As for the hockey situation? Well, it looks like we’ll know more by January 11.