(Copied from a factsheet by Animal Aid – www.animalaid.org.uk)
In recent years, the animal rights movement has found itself under the threat of different types of legal proceedings. Among the hazards are those presented by the laws of libel.
In simple terms, a libel is a ‘published’ statement that the court rules is damaging to the reputation of another. A slander is a damaging statement that is spoken in the hearing of others rather than being published. The publication and circulation of campaign journals, leaflets and other materials count as publishing as do statements made on television, radio and in newspapers. A person complaining of a libel or slander usually talks in terms of their reduced reputation within a community and damage to their career or business.
When writing or publicly speaking about companies or individuals, don’t stray outside what you know – and can prove – to be true and reasonable. For example, while we might be convinced that a person doing animal experiments is callous, and has no feelings whatsoever for the animals and is only interested in money and career advancement, it could be an impossible task to demonstrate clearly before a jury that such statements are true and fair.
The thing to remember about libel and slander is that you can state about a hundred provable facts and make any number of strong supporting comments (“this person clearly has a poor record of animal husbandry and should never again be permitted any contact with animals”) but you only have to get one fact wrong and it is that error which will get you into trouble.
Criticising animal experiments in general or, for example, the sheep trade, leaves you far more scope because there is no one individual likely to jump up and claim they have been injured. Although, here again, it makes no sense to exaggerate or make unsupportable statements, given that our unadorned case is so strong.
For an extreme example of a case brought against protesters for libel, click here – this is the story of McDonalds taking 2 protesters to court over claims made on a leaflet. This case is now famously known as “The McLibel Case”.