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Feb. 23, 2005

A big McWin for free speech

by Alex Mazerov, Page Editor
On Feb. 14, the same day that a federal appeals court ruled that reporters at The New York Times and Time magazine may face jail time if they refuse to testify before a grand jury about their confidential conversations with government sources, free-speech advocates across the pond in England earned a huge victory.
The front page of the London Greenpeace leaflets.
The front page of the London Greenpeace leaflets.

That day marked the end of the longest-running court case in English history -- what came to be known as the "McLibel Case." The European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling that two environmental activists convicted of defaming the McDonald's Corporation in 1997 were denied freedom of expression by the British government and did not receive a fair trial.

The story dates back almost two decades to September 1985, when members of London Greenpeace began picketing a McDonald's location in central London. The next year, the activists began distributing leaflets titled, "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know." According to The Washington Post, the flyers displayed the words "McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder, McDisease…" superimposed on the McDonald's golden arches. They also featured a cartoon of a man wearing a Stetson hat with a "Ronald McDonald" mask hiding his face. The leaflets accused McDonald's of obliterating rainforests, exploiting cheap labor and contributing to poverty in Third World countries. The flyers also alleged that the company was promoting unhealthy diets.

McDonald's dismissed the accusations, and claimed it was a good citizen. The corporation threatened legal action against numerous groups and activists, most of whom backed down. However, two activists in England, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, decided to stand up to the corporate behemoth. In 1990, McDonald's filed libel suits against Morris and Steel.

The defendants, an unemployed former postal worker and a part-time bartender, could not afford to hire lawyers and were forced to represent themselves with only the sporadic help of a few volunteer attorneys. McDonald's, on the other hand, sent a small army of libel specialists and researchers to represent the company in the lawsuit. According to The Washington Post, court transcripts of the trial were approximately 20,000 pages long. Around 40,000 pages of documentary evidence were presented and 130 witnesses testified. In a 762-page judgment in 1997, a court ruled for McDonald's on most charges and awarded the company a $98,000 libel judgment. When it was all the over, the "McLibel Case" had consumed 313 days in court over a period of two-and-a-half years and had cost McDonald's upwards of $16 million in legal fees.

In 2000, the two activists filed suit against the British government at the European Court of Human Rights. Morris and Steel contended that the government's refusal to provide legal aid denied them a free hearing and their right to an adequate legal defense, a violation of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. On Feb. 14, the court finally issued its ruling. A seven-judge panel based in Strasbourg, France, reversed the 1997 judgment and ruled unanimously that the British government should have given Morris and Steel legal aid so they could effectively defend themselves. In its statement, the court said, "The proceedings and their outcome constituted a disproportionate interference with [Morris and Steel's] right to freedom of expression." The panel also stated that English law had unfairly put an "intolerable burden" of proof on the defendants to prove the truthfulness of every word in the flyers that they circulated but did not actually produce. The decision dealt a blow not only to the original plaintiff, McDonald's, but also to Britain's laws governing libel, which, unlike American laws, generally favor plaintiffs. The court ordered that the British government pay Morris and Steel damages totaling 35,000 Euros (around $45,000).

"We won hands down on both our points – that the libel laws in this country are oppressive and they're unfair," Morris told The Washington Post.

In this day and age when the government is becoming increasingly powerful over the media and public opinion -- covertly paying pundits like Armstrong Williams to promote its agenda on the airwaves, for example -- we are now forced to look across our borders for positive examples of the triumph of truly free expression, as demonstrated in Britain in the "McLibel Case." Hopefully, free speech, one of the founding principles of the United States, and its tremendous power will soon prove unequivocally victorious over government-funded propaganda in our own country.



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  • Anarchist on February 23, 2005 at 3:03 PM
    This is an incredible miscarriage of justice. The sovereignty of Great Britain has been attacked. A European court has interfered with a member nation's right to make its own laws and administer its own justice.

    Further, the two "activists" WERE in violation of libel laws, and their accusations were, in fact, untrue. They won this case because the European Court dislikes McDonald's and wants to show it.
  • anarchist-syndicalist on February 23, 2005 at 6:29 PM
    anarchist is owned by big businesses like mcdonalds. stop spewing propaganda, you neo-conservative!
  • Anti-Anarchist on February 23, 2005 at 7:36 PM
    Anarchist:
    Last time I checked, Britian agreed to join the EU. They weren't invaded, the EU didn't just decide that Britian was a part, etc. When they VOTED to join, they agreed to abide by the rullings of courts such as the European Court on Human Rights. And when they signed the document, they agreed to abide by the European Convention on Human Rights. I have a hard time seeing the country having to abide by these agreements, which, by the way, were made strengthen both Britian and Europe as a whole as an "increadible miscarriage of justice" any more than requiring you to meet mortgage payments would be "robbery and extortion."
  • Anarchist on February 23, 2005 at 9:16 PM
    "Human Rights" used to refer to people not being killed in the streets, rounded up by secret police, or shot for holding unpopular views. Today, though, it seems to mean the right of leftists to lie about whatever they like.

    Honestly, do YOU believe that McDonald's murders people? THE DEFENDANTS ARE LIARS, and their lies maliciously (malicious intent is pretty clear here) injured another entity. Even under US libel law, the defendants are clearly guilty.

    Finally, what does the author mean when he writes, "In this day and age when the government is becoming increasingly powerful over the media and public opinion"? I notice he fails to establish any sort of trend that would indicate "increasing" power - or provide any evidence whatsoever (a single incident is not evidence of the sort of frightening trend described). Clear demagoguery.
  • Alex Mazerov (View Email) on February 24, 2005 at 1:54 PM
    Just a few more examples of the government exerting control over the media and minimizing the notion of a truly free and objective press (besides Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator the Education Department paid under the table to trumpet the president's No Child Left Behind Act):

    1) Syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, who the administration paid to promote Bush's "marriage" initiatives

    2) Karen Ryan and Alberto Garcia, two actors posing as actual reporters in bogus news reports ("In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting") pretending to "sort through the details" of the Bush administration's Medicare prescription-drug plan in 2004. Such "reports," appeared in more than 50 news broadcasts around the country. The Government Accountability Office has deemed them illegal "covert propaganda."

    3) "Jeff Gannon," a "reporter" for the blatantly partisan group GOPUSA and the phony Talon News Service, who the White House allowed into press briefings to lob softball, and frequently inaccurate, questions at the president or Press Secretary Scott McClellan. This despite the fact that Jeff Gannon, which was actually a pseudonym for his real name, James Guckert, had no journalistic credentials whatsoever. Talon News was also completely illegitimate. According to Media Matters for America, Talon's "news" usually consists of recycled Republican National Committee talking points and White House press releases.

    4) The Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence, intended to provide propagandistic news items to foreign news media, was discontinued in 2002 when it became a political liability.
    The Pentagon created propaganda-spewing websites designed to look like actual legitimate news sites.

    5) The faux town hall meetings the Bush campaign carefully designed for television during last year's presidential campaign. Participants were carefully-selected Bush supporters who often asked the president questions like "As a child, how can I help you get votes?" As Kenneth R. Bazinet wrote last summer in the New York Daily News, the events were designed so that "unsuspecting viewers" might get the false impression that they were "watching a completely open forum."
  • Michael Bushnell (View Email) on February 24, 2005 at 2:31 PM
    Yeah, McDonald's deserved to win this case; its not free speech when you heinously make things up like these two people did.

  • ashley (View Email) on February 24, 2005 at 3:51 PM
    interesting article
  • Anonymous on February 24, 2005 at 10:55 PM
    McMurder? Come on, that's libel if I've ever seen it.
  • Anti-Anarchist on February 25, 2005 at 9:24 PM
    Anarchist, wrong again! If you understood US libel law, you would know that it extends most of it's protections to PRIVATE individuals--not public personas (celebrities, etc) or name-brand corporations. McDonalds would have a tough time with the case.
  • Dali Lama on February 26, 2005 at 8:19 PM
    Funny that a guy calling himself 'Anarchist' would support government intervention in opposition of what, in a free (anarchist) society, would be considered free speech.
  • fyi on February 27, 2005 at 12:13 AM
    Under New York Times vs. Sullivan, a public entity such as a celebrity or major company is entitled to libel damages if a statement is made with "actual malice," defined by the Supreme Court as "reckless disregard" for the truth.

    Does "McMurder" qualify? If McDonalds can demonstrate that 1.) the defense made the statement knowing it was incorrect and 2.) the statement cost McDonalds in some way, then yes.
  • Bob on February 27, 2005 at 10:45 AM
    But this isn't the US Anti-Anarchist.
  • jessica (View Email) on March 9, 2005 at 10:11 AM
    its exactly like when an officer reads you his rights "you have the right to remain silent any thing you say can be held against you
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