Tuesday, February 15, 2005

UK - Victory for "McLibel" duo in European court

From the Financial Times of London:

Two environmental campaigners who fought an epic legal battle against the US-based McDonald’s fast-food chain have emerged victorious from the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg-based court on Tuesday declared that their "fair trial" and "freedom of expression" rights had been breached by the UK court process, which resulted in them facing damages claims of £76,000.

Helen Steel and David Morris were members of a small environmental and social campaign group which targeted McDonald's in the mid-1980s. In the course of this, a six-page leaflet was produced and distributed, called "What's wrong with McDonald's?".

The US-based fast-food chain, however, countered by suing the couple for libel. This, in turn, paved the way for the longest trial in English legal history, lasting from June 1994 to December 1996.

The two defendants - who denied publication, and put forward a range of libel defences - were refused legal aid, and so represented themselves with some help from volunteer lawyers. McDonald's, by contrast, had a qualified legal team.
"Given the enormity and complexity of (the trial process), the Court does not consider that the correct balance was struck between the need to protect the applicants' rights to freedom of expression and the need to protect McDonalds' rights and reputation," it concluded.

"The more general interest in promoting the free circulation of information and ideas about the activities of powerful commercial entities, and possible "chilling" effect on others are also important factors to be considered in this context, bearing in mind the legitimate and important role that campaign groups can play in stimulating public discussion," it added.

The Court awarded Helen Steel E20,000 and David Morris E15,000 for non-pecuniary damage and just over E47,300 for costs and expenses.

Though there are a number of ways in which our British friends seem more evolved than we are, freedom of expression ain't one of them. This case got massive publicity when it was crawling through the British courts a decade ago, and I thought it had ended, badly for the folks speaking out against McFood. Now a higher court has effectively reversed. Welcome to federalism, Governor Blair.


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