Tuesday, August 29, 2006

British Due Process v. The American First Amendment

I'm feeling very First Amendment Fundamentalist tonight. Hence, a rant.

Should I not have been surprised to learn, while perusing Foreign Policy's blog, that The New York Times has blocked British users from accessing a story that details evidence against those being prosecuted for the airline bomb plots that resulted in this most recent wave of heightened airport security?

I'm not familiar enough with Brit press law and whatever their equivalent of federal law is, so I could be missing something. But blocking access to information that a few enterprising reporters - or enterprising others - are able to gather just never seems like a good idea to me. While I understand that the Times' explanation basically says the paper is covering its legal arse, FP hints at why it is probably not such a good idea for this sort of thing to be enforced:

"The Internet frequently collides with Britain's phenomenally restrictive press laws. In 1997, Jack Straw's son was busted selling cannabis to an undercover reporter. But because he was a minor, his name could not be revealed in British papers. It was, however, all over the Internet and the London gossip scene."

Yup.....gossip and rumor are likely to fly far too freely in the absence of substantiated facts. And while part of the intent of the Brit restrictions might be to limit prejudice against the defendants, seems to me that rumor is far more likely to taint opinion than reporting that is based in fact.

Since the Times is an American paper, I don't understand how it might be subject to British press law; and I can't ever imagine the Times of the NYT v. Sullivan or the Pentagon Papers cases subjecting itself to what to me amounts to a form of prior restraint. Or, in this case, prior self-restraint.

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