BOB GARFIELD: In December we discussed on this program a libel lawsuit that has been filed in Australia against an American journalist. The Australian High Court had agreed to hear the case even though the article in question appeared in Barron's, a Dow Jones publication based in New York. The court reasoned that the plaintiff, Joseph Gutnick, had a reputation to protect wherever the article was read -- not where it was published. And because the article could be read on line in Gutnick's home state of Victoria, Australia, the judges there would hear the case. No doubt Gutnick was aware that Australian libel laws are very favorable to plaintiffs. Now the reporter being sued -- Bill Alpert --is going after the Australian legal system with a countersuit. Last month he filed a plea with the UN Human Rights Commission alleging that the Australian Court is violating his rights. Bill Alpert, welcome to OTM.
BILL ALPERT: Hi. It's great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Well why is this a matter for the Human Rights Commission. No doubt being sued halfway around the world in a plaintiff-friendly court is a hassle, but is it really an abrogation of your rights?
BILL ALPERT: Well if you consider human rights to include free speech, then it is, and the bizarre problem with laws like Australia is that you can publish a true story and still be punished. Another reason that the UN is a good place to holler about this issue is that Australians invited it! The judges up the chain in the Australian courts said, you know, maybe this will lead to forum-shopping by plaintiffs, but if the Internet requires a change in our libel laws, then the legislature of Australia should change it, or some international treaty should change it.
BOB GARFIELD: Did the Australian courts actually give you the idea of going to the Human Rights Tribunal?
BILL ALPERT: No. I don't think anybody's ever had the idea of doing this.
BOB GARFIELD:Well putting aside for a moment the threats to a free press of this sort of libel-tourism where you can go shopping for the best deal that countries' courts might provide, it's also inevitable that different countries are going to have different approaches to libel law. Are you suggesting that the United Nations be the ultimate authority when there's a conflict between two different legal systems?
BILL ALPERT: People in other systems would complain that these aren't their ideals, but I think generally those people would be the oligarchs who don't like having a light shined on what they do. My publisher, Dow Jones, is very busy in Singapore where the oligarchs control the courts and-- where they're always hauling in different Dow Jones-associated publications and caning them for writing things that embarrass the business interests, or their -the government arms, of the ruling clans.
BOB GARFIELD: Caning, not literally but figuratively through libel action.
BILL ALPERT: So far. So far. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD:Now, you have more experience than most in these matters because you've been around this bend once before. You were sued in a foreign court in England, correct?
BILL ALPERT: I was! And-- England, which has progressed a little bit beyond Australia, tossed it out and said, "This is an American fight; you know, go take it up on your own doorsteps." The libel law which becomes a hurdle for people writing challenging unflattering stories is in practice mostly a-- a censoring area of law; the whole history of libel law is that it really got going in England in the 1800s when, you know, Lord Haw-Haw wanted to get back at the upstart bourgeois newspapermen who were reporting that he was eating opium in the House of Lords or whatever.
BOB GARFIELD:As a practical matter, has the Human Rights Tribunal of the United Nations given you any indication when it may rule on this case?
BILL ALPERT: Not at all. It, it-- could take forever, and-- in part this case is more a consciousness-raising attempt and also our gift to posterity.
BOB GARFIELD: Very well. Bill Alpert. Thank you very much.
BILL ALPERT: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill Alpert, a reporter for Barron's magazine, is being sued in Australia for an article that he wrote in New York.