Libel Reform: An open letter to the Northern Ireland Executive

Below is the text of an open letter to Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MLA, First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Martin McGuiness MLA, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, from thirty-one authors, poets and playwrights from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

16 September 2013
Dear Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness
We are writing to urge you to commit to libel reform in Northern Ireland.
Until very recently, libel law in the UK was a global embarrassment: the mere threat of a libel action had the potential to chill the speech of authors, journalists, scientists, civil rights activists and bloggers writing in the UK and around the world. Doctors were sued for speaking out in the public interest, and human rights groups risked legal writs when they exposed abuse. Ordinary people, writing on internet forums, found their comments censored by wealthy bullies and corporations. 
The United Nations Human Rights Committee criticised the law as stifling free speech, and lawmakers in the United States enacted protections against what they called ‘libel terrorism’. 
The attacks on everyday free speech inspired a grassroots campaign for change. More than 60,000 people signed a petition for libel reform, endorsed by scientists, lawyers, doctors, journalists, authors and dozens of civil society groups.
Westminster parliamentarians from all parties responded to this movement for reform. The Defamation Act 2013 put the complex common law into statute, and delivered a better balance between our right to a reputation and our right to free speech. Anyone smeared by anonymous comments or tabloid gossip will still be able to seek redress, but there are clear protections for reporting in the public interest.
Unfortunately, the Stormont Executive has taken no action to extend reform to Northern Ireland. This decision could have severe repercussions for libel reform throughout the United Kingdom: there is even a risk that Northern Ireland may become a new forum for libel bullies, undermining the significant advance for free speech over the past four years.

As writers, we are particularly concerned about the impact of the unreformed libel laws on the freedom to write: biographers, historians, journalists and even novelists will remain vulnerable to libel actions on trivial and vexatious grounds. The mere threat of a libel action is also enough to discourage publishers from touching controversial subjects. 
Without libel reform, the people of Northern Ireland will enjoy fewer free speech protections than their fellow citizens in England and Wales. We call upon the Executive to redress this imbalance, and breathe life into the right that underpins all other rights: our right to freedom of speech.
Yours sincerely

Sebastian Barry
Paul Bew
Lucy Caldwell
Paul Charles
Gerald Dawe
Anne Devlin
Roddy Doyle
Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Brian Keenan
Graham Linehan
Michael Longley
Edna Longley
Bernard MacLaverty
Roisin McAuley
Brian McAvera
Anne McCartney

Michael McDowell
Tim McGarry
Frank McGuinness
Christina McKenna
Adrian McKinty
Gary Mitchell
Paul Muldoon
Stuart Neville
Glenn Patterson
Henry Patterson
Damon Quinn
Graham Reid
Christina Reid
Anne Tannahill
Colm Tóibín


 (Image: Etrusia UK on Flickr)

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