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March 17, 2011, 10 a.m.

The Duke of Brunswick and the net: The far reaches of British libel law

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its spring issue, which spotlights the efforts of reporters trying to uncover corruption. We’re highlighting a few entries that connect with subjects we follow in the Lab, but go read the whole issue. In this piece, Jonathan Seitz writes about the British libel law that has gained unexpected reach in the Internet age.

Germany’s Duke of Brunswick was an overweight, autocratic paranoiac who was kicked out of his fiefdom by a peasant uprising.

A statement like that might be the reason why the United Kingdom has come to be considered the libel capital of the world. While living in exile in Paris in 1848, the Duke became one of the U.K.’s first libel tourists when he sent his manservant across the channel to purchase a copy of the September 19, 1830 Weekly Dispatch, which he believed contained defamatory statements against him. The exact details of what was written have been lost to history, but the court ruled that the words were libelous enough to award a judgment. More important was the finding that the mere purchase of a copy of the newspaper constituted a new publication and a new act of libel; this essentially nullified the six-year statute of limitations.

The Duke of Brunswick ruling — formally known as the “multiple publication” rule — still stands. Brought into the Internet era, it means that if an article is viewed even once in the U.K., it falls under its jurisdiction for a libel suit.

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POSTED     March 17, 2011, 10 a.m.
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