I’ve been meaning to post this recent press release for a while, and now that I’ve got around to sending the Bookshop Libel Fund a cheque, I can post it with a better conscience…
BOOKSHOP LIBEL FUND
c/o HOUSMANS BOOKSHOP, 5 Caledonian Road, London, N1 9DX, UK
c/o BOOKMARKS BOOKSHOP, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London, WC1B 3QE, UK
PRESS RELEASE – Wednesday 3 July
£14 DERISORY DAMAGES IN FIRST OF BOOKSHOP LIBEL CASES
MORAL VICTORY – LEGAL IMPASSE – FINANCIAL PREDICAMENT
A High Court verdict on Tuesday 2 July could be a short-term deterrent to right-wingers using libel writs to attack small radical bookshops; but it still leaves two of London’s last such shops with potentially crippling legal bills, and it exposes a major gap in defamation law which needs plugging.
The two-day High Court case was the culmination of an action brought nearly 2 years ago against Housmans Bookshop in Kings Cross, London,by someone currently using the name Alexander Baron. The right-wing anti-gay litigant had been referred to as a plagiarist in one sentence in a 136-page pamphlet stocked in the shop. He had chosen to sue only the shop, not the author or publisher concerned, becauseof his distaste for the sort of material made available in radical bookshops.
Although he had at one stage demanded that the shop pay him £50,000 to drop the case, the jury awarded him just £14. Because he had already rejected a settlement offer higher than that, he was also ordered to pay most of the shop’s legal costs; however, there is no expectation that he has the resources to do so.
Despite the jury’s apparent sympathy with the defendants, they clearly felt virtually compelled by the judge’s legal rulings to find against the shop. Following this test case – the first occasion on which a bookshop has tried to use the “innocent dissemination” defence introduced in the 1996 Defamation Act – it seems that if anyone suggests to a shop or library that an item on their shelves is defamatory, and they fail to remove it immediately, then they cannot use this defence in any proceedings later brought against them, irrespective of whether it was reasonable to take the suggestion seriously.
This action against Housmans was one of a series, dating back to 1996, brought against Housmans, Bookmarks (also in London) and others by people criticised in anti-fascist magazines. This was the first to end up in court, but one of the earlier cases – against Bookmarks and Housmans, and involving the magazine Searchlight – is still extant. It is due in court this autumn unless a settlement is reached first – either course is financially costly.
The Bookshop Libel Fund is calling for urgent financial support for the shops to cover their costs in these cases, and for a change in the law to stop bookshops being targeted in this way.
DONATIONS: Donations to the appeal fund should be made out to “Bookshop Libel Fund” & sent to Bookmarks, or Housmans, (addresses above). On-line credit/debit card donations can be made here.