The Times Online reports that libel claims in the United Kingdom have dropped dramatically in the last decade, from 452 in 1997 to just 64 this current year.
The statistics are encouraging news, given that many media defense lawyers have long feared that the Internet Age would usher in a deluge of suits in the U.K., where defamation laws are considerably more favorable to plaintiffs, and journalists cannot count on the protections provided by the First Amendment. For instance, English law does not demand that plaintiffs prove that damaging statements about them are false or distinguish between private figures and public figures and officials who are involved in matters of public concern.
While the numbers do sound good, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they represent a step in the right direction. The Times chalks up the shift – at least in part – to plaintiffs’ attorneys performing more “reputation management” services (for example, sending letters threatening law suits prior to publication) for high profile clients who may face media scrutiny.
Such tactics only work because of the inordinate amount of suits that marred yesteryear. The regularity with which speakers faced courtrooms combined with unfavorable law may have established enough precedent that much of the speech that may have been published in the past never sees the light of day now. It is exactly those concerns that motivated the U.S. to so faithfully protect potentially damaging speech by the First Amendment in the first place.