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.