Saturday, December 12, 2009

So sue me?

Lawyers. They’re a funny old group of people aren’t they. They are the people who spend years trying to understand the many confusing and befuddling laws of the land, and apply it on our behalf. It’s like hiring a translator really, if you consider law a language unto itself. I suppose in that way lawyers collectively are like a high school clique, with their own created slang to confuse and keep out the ‘un-cool kids’ outside their circle, and in that way it is hard to trust them. Especially as their only apparent criterion for defending a criminal, no matter how immoral they may be, is whether they can pay or not. All in all, what I’m saying is that I don’t trust lawyers.

The main reason I’ve decided to bring this up now is because of a number of libel cases that I’ve noticed recently, gagging people from making comment which is considered slanderous. Now don’t get me wrong I have no problem with protecting people from unnecessary slander, these laws do have their time and place. However, like many laws they are rigid and open to abuse; if context and common sense aren’t taking into account. The examples I’m talking about mainly occur as a result of corporations protecting their image for some reason or another, by threatening a writer or commentator with a valid criticism of something unfair on unjust about said company with legal action. In many cases these don’t even make it to court as the threat (mainly in the form of strongly worded legal letters) is enough to make the accused back down. Alexei Sayle also comments on these issues claiming: “People are either bullied into settling out of court, and admitting wrongdoing even when they're completely right, or they self-censor.”

An example of this can be found here, where stand-up comedian and blogger Richard Herring was forced to censor a blog post he wrote about why he was dissatisfied with his bank not passing on a cut in interest rates. He was sent an email by the bank in question ordering him to remove the post, although in the end he was able to get around this matter by removing the name of the bank from the article. My problem with this I guess is why should a bank be allowed to legally protect itself from consumer complaints when it is providing unsatisfactory service? Surely that alienates the customer further and implies that it isn’t responsible for it’s poor service, even when complaint is due. What right has any company to pretend that it’s above criticism because it can simply send in the lawyers to shut the complainer up?

Sometimes this can be taken even further, as was seen with the Trafigura scandal this year. In this case an entire national newspaper was legally gagged (through the use of an aptly named ‘Super Injunction’) from reporting on the murky story of a government question about an oil company poisoning an Ivory Coast community with their toxic waste output. What right had Trafigura to defend their tarnished image after poisoning several hundered people? None of course, and yet for a few hours they were allowed to silence a major newspaper in this country. In a so-called free society that is pretty scary.

The silliest thing about this all is that when you attempt to defend your image by trying to shut other people up using the courts, you only do yourself more damage. Most people had never even heard of Trafigura before the ‘super-injunction’ incident and after they were splashed all over the media and the web. If something is bad you should be able to say so otherwise we’re not much better than a police state. Corporate interests shouldn’t ever be so great that they become above the law. And then there’s scientology…

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