Not all libel laws are created equal, which is why Lawrence Wright’s new book on the Church of Scientology isn’t sitting on bookshelves in a couple of Commonwealth countries. Transworld, the book’s UK publisher, decided to bench Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief, citing a lack of “robustness” to withstand British defamation laws. Now, Knopf U.S. – the North American publisher – is postponing the Canadian release while lawyers do a thorough defamation legal review of the book. Does the publishers’ decision not to issue Wright’s tome in Canada and the UK mean the book is filled with prevarications? In a phrase: not necessarily. What it does signal, however, is that defamation laws in Canada and the United Kingdom aren’t as press-friendly as they are in the United States.
The Growing Canon of Scientology Criticism & the Lessening Fear of COS Libel Litigation
Media outlets were once terrified of L. Ron Hubbard’s notoriously litigious organization. In 1970, the COS famously sued author Paulette Cooper for libel (in British court) over an article published in Queen Magazine. In 1971, Cooper was again hauled into court – this time in Los Angeles – over her book, The Scandal of Scientology. The case was so negative it led to years of self-censoring amongst publishers and authors when it came to talking about L. Ron Hubbard’s congregation.
But after a recent rash of high profile defections and unflattering investigative reports, networks and magazines no longer seem to fear the legal wrath of the new age church. Over the past three years, nearly all the major news networks have produced a piece about the highly secretive group, and over a half a dozen books on the topic have been published. Some of the accounts, like Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story Of America’s Most Secretive Religion, take a hyper objective, traditionally journalistic approach, whereas others, like Mark Headley’s Blown for Good and Jenna Miscavige Hill’s Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, are freighted with vexing personal experiences.
Unlike authors in the past who were saddled with defamation lawsuits after penning unflattering reports on Scientology, the latest group of authors hasn’t been dragged into court to defend themselves against libel charges.
What Could Be Considered Defamatory in Lawrence Wright’s New Book on Scientology?
Lawrence Wright’s Scientology expose offering is a balance of personal accounts from former members and a historical exploration of L. Ron Hubbard, the organization’s polarizing founder. Since the book focuses on the Church’s Hollywood adherents – both past and present – wright delved into the lives of Tom Cruise, John Travolta and other famous former and current members. Wright does mention rumors that have festooned both Cruise and Travolta for years, in addition to disturbing stories about beatings and social torture from former members of the church’s monastic order – the Sea Org. In other words, the work is filled with salacious gossip and scandalous accusations (many of which are annotated with footnotes).
If Going Clear Is Not Defamatory, Why Is It Not Being Published?
At face value, it’s easy to conclude that Wright’s book must be filled with libelous content since defamation lawsuit fears are preventing it from being published. But the reasons for keeping the manuscript off Canadian and UK bookshelves are complicated.
Defendants Bear the Burden of Proof in Nearly All Commonwealth Countries
Defamation laws in Canada and the UK are not as free speech friendly as their American counterparts. The main difference in that the burden of proof falls squarely on the defendant in Commonwealth countries, whereas the plaintiff must do all the proving in a U.S. court of law.
This difference in proof-burden makes it difficult for defendants if the plaintiffs have signed affidavits declaring the opposite of the defendants’ claims. According to reports from ex-Scientologists, in order to properly “route out” of the Sea Org, departing members are allegedly asked to sign affidavits in order to leave. Doing so makes it incredibly tough to win a legal case in a country where defendants bear the burden of proof. The existence of these affidavits also can cause problems for reporters, too.
Lawyers Ain’t Cheap in Her Majesty’s Realm
International organizations with loads in the bank can afford the best lawyers, and one of the special talents of skilled lawyers – especially those who represent clients with precarious arguments – is dragging out litigation for as long as possible. That means ex-Scientology “monks” – with very little resources – don’t have much of a shot against a passel of high-paid attorneys.
Now you may be thinking: but Lawrence Wright is a renowned journalists, he shouldn’t have a problem. While it’s true that Mr. Wright may have an easier time finding a legal team to match that of Scientology’s legal posse, the cost would still be significant. According to a post by Steve Rose on The Guardian’s Shortcuts Blog, legal fees in the United Kingdom are about 140X higher than international norms. As such, a publisher can choose to throw financial caution to the wind, publish, and then deal with the inevitable lawsuit; or, they can save themselves the legal headache and refrain from publishing in countries with plaintiff-friendly libel laws. Most opt for the latter.
Is Scientology’s Argument That Pulling Going Clear Is Proof Of Its Defamatory Nature a Sound Argument?
Karin Pouw, a Scientology International Spokesperson, quipped that “British and Canadian publishers chose not to print Mr. Wright’s book, which speaks volumes about their confidence in its facts and allegations Mr. Wright ignored the real story of Scientology in favor of stale allegations and ever-changing bizarre tales invented by a handful of confessed liars consumed with their media smear campaign.”
But now you know: the issue isn’t as black-and-white as Karin Pouw is characterizing. International defamation issues fall squarely into the gray area and the choice to publish or not to publish in certain countries is not necessarily a question of truth, but instead one of money, time and transnational legalities.
Do you remember the last Canadian election? Remember the sketchy activity involving robo-calls misdirecting people to the wrong polling stations? Well, it looks like that scandal has birthed another lawsuit; specifically, a defamation clash between tech company, RackNine, and politician, Pat Martin.
Edmonton-based Rack Nine is a tech company that offers robo-call services. The company was popular with many candidates in the 2011 election. According to the main investigation, Rack Nine was the company which distributed the bogus polling-location change calls. It’s unknown, however, who ordered the call. Elections Canada, though, says that Rack Nine has been nothing but cooperative and is in no way involved in the scandal. (Hey, they’re just a business who got an order that they fulfilled.)
Back in February, though, Mr. Martin accused RackNine of being “rascals” who were complicit with the faux robo-call scandal. Martin did eventually apologize, but RackNine is not yet satisfied with his mea culpas. The tech company fells that Martin did not apologize quick enough, nor sincerely enough. They allege that his unkind words and accusations have damaged their business reputation and are therefore filing a libel lawsuit. Oddly, Martin is reaching out to his constituents for monetary support to fight the charges.
As political science expert, Paul Thomas, put it, it’s odd that you see a politician being sued for defamation in Canada, much less asking for donations for legal fees on their websites. They usually are good at keeping things civil in the media, reserving their jabs for the House of Commons. But Thomas seems fairly confident that this defamation lawsuit won’t hurt Martin too badly. After all, the politician’s outspoken manor is what makes him popular amongst many.
According to Martin’s people, his online plea for financial support has largely been positive. They say that approximately 50 Canadians contributed to his cause within the first 24 hours, each donating between $20 and $100.
Depending on the outcome of the defamation lawsuit, the House of Commons may contribute up to $200 per lawyer hour for Martin’s legal costs. Legally speaking, Martin’s fund raising activity is in the green, so long as he does not solicit or accept the funds on in an official capacity as a New Democratic Party or as a Member of Parliament. They’re also not deductible.
Any monies received by Martin will be placed into an independent trust fund and monitored by trustees. Any funds that aren’t used for Martin’s legal costs will be donated to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Children’s Wish Foundation.
Do you want to read more about slander and libel laws in Canada (the most plaintiff-friendly defamation jurisdiction in the English-speaking world)? Then navigate on over to the International Defamation Law Database.
Freedom of speech is now being defined as slander in some places. According to the Chicago Tribune, six people in Oman were arrested and sentenced to considerable jail time, varying from one year to as much as 18 months. The crime? Speaking out in protest against their government’s lack of advancement in job creation.
Last month, nearly a dozen individuals were given sentences of up to a year for illegal gathering. An additional 18 citizens were given extended room and board in a government facility for posting “incitement” posts on the Internet. They had the unmitigated audacity to speak out against their government, including comments directed against their long time ruler, Sultan Qaboos.
Sultan Qaboos has been in power for an impressive 47 years. He holds the record for the longest Arab head of state in office without being “retired” or beheaded.
The offensive comments were made in late May, a result of workers striking in protest within Oman’s oil sector. The oil sector accounts for the lion’s share of Oman’s revenue. The Sultan had promised that thousands of jobs would be created and unemployment benefits would be given. His generosity was in response to civil unrest and disturbances last year.
Similar protests this year were sparked in the shadow of last year’s Spring Revolt. This year’s protests were a result of frustration over the government’s non-implementation of an effective strategy for creating private sector jobs, as promised.
The six outspoken daredevils were also accused of actively and intentionally “violating information technology regulations”, which is as good a job of double-speaking as any U.S. government official could perform. They were awarded fines of 1,000 rial per person (about $2,600 in USD).
Ahmed Bin Said, an activist who voluntarily attended the hearing, said the involuntary attendees had been criticizing the government. In addition to the crime of opinionating, they were also charged with admonishing the government for not publicly naming officials who are being investigated for corruption.
On September 16, similar cases are scheduled to be ruled on.
Want to learn about defamation laws from around the world? Check out the Kelly / Warner International Defamation Law Database.