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'McLibel' verdict a mixed bag for McDonalds

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  1. Libel and Privacy
'McLibel' verdict a mixed bag for McDonalds 06/30/97 ENGLAND--McDonald's Corp. was awarded $98,000 (U.S.) in mid-June in a libel case…

‘McLibel’ verdict a mixed bag for McDonalds

06/30/97

ENGLAND–McDonald’s Corp. was awarded $98,000 (U.S.) in mid-June in a libel case brought against two anti-McDonald’s protesters who distributed pamphlets criticizing the company, following the longest civil trial in English history.

The fast-food company sued Helen Steel and David Morris in the Royal Courts of Justice in London after they distributed thousands of pamphlets in front of various McDonald’s restaurants in England. The pamphlets accused McDonald’s of unscrupulous behavior ranging from providing poor working conditions to contributing to starvation in the Third World. Three other protesters involved in distribution of the pamphlet retracted their statements after the company threatened suit.

Having spent a reported $16 million on the bench trial, McDonald’s was awarded the equivalent of more than $98,000, according to the Associated Press. Morris and Steel, who represented themselves at trial, said in a press release that they would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights “to overturn the UK’s unfair and oppressive libel laws.”

Justice Roger Bell called “unjustified” allegations that McDonald’s promoted starvation in the Third World, destroyed rain forests and knowingly sold food “with serious risk of damaging their customers’ health.” The court added that an accusation that the company lied about the use of recycled paper was serious because it suggested McDonald’s was deceptive.

But the pamphleteers’ other allegations, including accusations of cruelty to animals in rearing and slaughter and low pay at restaurants, had “an element of justification,” the court said, adding that “the evidence did disclose unsatisfactory aspects of their working conditions.”

England does not require public figures to prove that defendants acted with “actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — in libel suits. In addition, the law places the burden of proving truth upon defendants. Although a “fair comment” defense is allowed on matters of public interest, the defense is available only for expressions of opinion and does not extend to defamatory statements of fact. (McDonald’s Corp. v. Steel)