Housmans libel case

Bob Pitt comradebobpitt at yahoo.co.uk
Thu Jul 4 07:34:21 MDT 2002


BOOKSHOP LIBEL FUND
c/o Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1
9DX (tel 020-7278 4474);
c/o Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London
WC1B 3QE (tel 020-7637 1848).

Email: blf at housmans.idps.co.uk


£14 DERISORY DAMAGES IN FIRST OF BOOKSHOP LIBEL CASES

MORAL VICTORY - LEGAL IMPASSE - FINANCIAL PREDICAMENT


A High Court verdict on Tuesday 2 July could be a
short-term deterrent to right-wingers using libel
writs to attack small radical bookshops; but it still
leaves two of London's last such shops with
potentially crippling legal bills, and it exposes a
major gap in defamation law which needs plugging.

The two-day High Court case was the culmination of an
action brought nearly 2 years ago against Housmans
Bookshop in Kings Cross, London, by someone currently
using the name Alexander Baron. The right-wing
anti-gay litigant had been referred to as a plagiarist
in one sentence in a 136-page pamphlet stocked in the
shop. He had chosen to sue only the shop, not the
author or publisher concerned, because of his distaste
for the sort of material made available in radical
bookshops.

Although he had at one stage demanded that the shop
pay him £50,000 to drop the case, the jury awarded him
just £14. Because he had already rejected a settlement
offer higher than that, he was also ordered to pay
most of the shop's legal costs; however, there is no
expectation that he has the resources to do so.

Despite the jury's apparent sympathy with the
defendants, they clearly felt virtually compelled by
the judge's legal rulings to find against the shop.
Following this test case - the first occasion on which
a bookshop has tried to use the "innocent
dissemination" defence introduced in the 1996
Defamation Act - it seems that if anyone suggests to a
shop or library that an item on their shelves is
defamatory, and they fail to remove it immediately,
then they cannot use this defence in any proceedings
later brought against them, irrespective of whether it
was reasonable to take the suggestion seriously.

This action against Housmans was one of a series,
dating back to 1996, brought against Housmans,
Bookmarks (also in London) and others by people
criticised in anti-fascist magazines. This was the
first to end up in court, but one of the earlier cases
- against Bookmarks and Housmans, and involving the
magazine Searchlight - is still extant. It is due in
court this autumn unless a settlement is reached first
- either course is legally costly.

The Bookshop Libel Fund is calling for urgent
financial support for the shops to cover their costs
in these cases, and for a change in the law to stop
bookshops being targeted in this way.

For further details about the case, contact Albert
Beale. Tel 0207 278 4474. Email:
blf at housmans.idps.co.uk


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