George Galloway, former Labour (he was kicked out of the party in 2003) current “Respect Party” MP for Bradford West, and global lefty gadfly, is suing the National Union of Students for libel. Yes, he fights what he and others consider to be “the good fight”, but his fight is one that I disagree with as often as I agree, his methods can be interpreted as inflammatory, and arguably he is a discredit to the progressive cause at least as often as he helps.
I have three thoughts on this. First, suing the umbrella organisation for British university students is short sighted at best. These people should be a source of support for his various causes for a variety of reasons (e.g. having come of university age under the Tory – Lib Dem coalition, English and Welsh students paying £9000 per year simply to hear people like me talk). In one move, he is alienating an entire support base. But then, alienating his support, or the population in general, has not been a barrier to action for Galloway.
At issue is the NUS has banned him for being a “rape denier”, a description that Galloway finds as a defamatory characterisation of his widely known critique that the Swedish allegations against Julian Assange “don’t constitute rape” and were at worst “bad sexual etiquette.” It’s not only the NUS who have a problem with this bizarre defense of Assange. His party leader denounced them (and then was sacked or stepped down, I don’t recall), he lost his gig as a columnist for a Scottish publication devoted to politics, and Rape Crisis found them to be “offensive and deeply concerning”.
Taking the NUS to court over libel is bonkers, especially after his office desperately attempted to convince the NUS to not take the step of banning him. Defending Assange on rape allegations when all the facts of the two cases are not in the public domain is reactionary, short sighted, and ludicrous. Taking the national body that represents seven million British university students to court is not politically adept, but again ludicrous.
My second thought concerns a comparison of libel law in both the United States and the United Kingdom. I preface this with the obvious: I’m not a lawyer, although I’ve had the occasion to employ several on two continents in the recent past, the present, and into the future. The key difference between the two is the default status of the allegedly libellous statement, and the onus of argument. In the United Kingdom (technically here England and Wales), the statement is regarded as false unless those making the statement can prove it to be true. In this case, the NUS as defendant would have to prove that George Galloway is a “rape denier”.
In England and Wales, a private individual need only establish negligence on the part of the defendant to be rewarded compensatory damages. Galloway, one of the more unprivate of individuals, needs to show that the defendant knew that the statement was false, resulting from actual malice. In order to be rewarded punitive damages, both private and public individuals need to demonstrate actual malice.
The United States is far more forgiving on defamation law, for which we in part have current interpretation of the First Amendment to thank. The burden of proof is (largely) on the plaintiff, and both constitutional and state level statutory law allow for many “outs” for a defendant in a libel case. By my understanding, this dates back to New York v Sullivan (1964). To use an example, the infamous parody of Jerry Falwell published in Hustler magazine is not protected in the United Kingdom, and I’d guess damages would have been rewarded to the point where said publication ceased to exist. In the United States, of course, this resulted in Hustler Magazine v Falwell (1988), which protects parody and the publication of the obviously ludicrous.
My third thought regards, well, me specifically and LGM in general. Which law holds should, say, Mr. Galloway object to my referring to him as a gadfly and decide to take me to court for libel? My guess is that English and Welsh law would hold, as I’m making this claim against a British subject, on my laptop located in my house in England. This will be tweeted to the University of Plymouth’s feed (it was my dean’s idea to tweet my academic / comparative stuff to the university feed, not to refer to Galloway as a gadfly). However, the “publication” of LGM is based in the United States. I know that the SPEECH Act (2010) would protect me in American courts as referring to Galloway as a gadfly is protected speech, and British libel law is not consistent with the protections afforded under the First Amendment.
One might imagine that my amateur understanding of variance in libel law has a permanent address in the back of my mind considering that I work, and live most of the year, in Britain, though I would be stunned if anything published in LGM would be considered of a high enough profile to warrant action. At least I feel pretty safe in my characterisation of Galloway as an “unprivate” individual, considering the clip above from Celebrity Big Brother in 2006.