Albion Monitor /Commentary

"McLibel" Type Lawsuits May Happen in U.S.

by Randolph T. Holhut

of recent McLibel events
(AR) McDonald's is the world's largest user of beef, a portion of which is raised on ex-rainforest land. Their menu is based upon the torture and murder of millions of animals. They further damage the environment by generating thousands of tons of unnecessary packaging each year that clogs up landfills.

McDonald's sells food that is high in fat, sugar and salt and low in vitamins and fiber -- a diet that is linked with a greater risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. McDonald's spends $1.8 billion a year worldwide on advertising and promotions -- most of which is designed to lure children to eat at its restaurants. They exploit workers by paying low wages and forcing employees to work long hours at a breakneck pace. It actively discourages union membership.

Under U.S. libel law, one can make these statements and not worry about legal action. McDonald's has the right to challenge them in court, but would have an extremely slim chance of winning a libel suit.

The case generated global attention and exposed McDonald's as being somewhat less benign than it portrays itself
In the U.S., a plaintiff must prove that a statement of fact was false and was made with knowledge of, or reckless disregard for, its falsity. Even if a plaintiff can prove a statement is false, he can not win a libel case unless he can also prove reckless disregard.

By comparison, Great Britain has the one of the most restrictive libel laws in the world. Under British law, the burden of proof is on the defendants. They, not the plaintiff, must prove that the statements they made are true.

There's no First Amendment in Britain that protects the right of free speech. Public figures do not to prove reckless disregard or malice by the defendant in libel suits. Unlike the U.S., British courts have the power to halt publication of material, also known as "prior restraint."

These differences made Great Britain the perfect venue for McDonald's to quash a challenge to their business practices by environmental activists. But Helen Steel, a 31-year-old part-time bartender, and Dave Morris, a 43-year-old unemployed ex-mailman, managed to tie up a multinational corporation in court for years.

Morris and Steel passed out an anti-McDonald's pamphlet in the late 1980s. Under the headline "What's Wrong With McDonald's? Everything They Don't Want You to Know," the pamphlets contained the statements that were made in the opening of this column. McDonald's was not amused by the it and sued for libel.

In the case that became known worldwide as the "McLibel" trial, a British court heard from 180 witnesses, sat for 313 days over 2 1/2 years and generated over 60,000 pages of transcripts and other documents. Despite having no legal experience, Steel and Morris represented themselves in court against McDonald's top-shelf lawyers in what would ultimately be the longest trial in England's history.

It cost McDonald's a reported $16 million to do it, but the corporation prevailed in court. In an 800-page ruling that was widely reported, Justice Rodger Bell ruled that the chain was "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals and for advertising that exploited children. But Bell found that the company doesn't destroy the rainforests, discriminate against employees or poison its customers with unhealthy food. Bell concluded that the two had harmed McDonald's reputation and ordered them to pay $96,000 in damages. Steel and Morris, both broke, have said they will appeal.

The great irony of this case is not that a multinational corporation, thinking it was in a friendly court venue, was cuffed around by a couple of environmental activists. It's that McDonald's decision to sue Steel and Morris focused worldwide attention on the company's business practices and resulted in a public relations disaster. The pamphlet is now in wide circulation on the World Wide Web, and Morris and Steel were out distributing copies of it the day after the verdict. The case generated global attention and exposed McDonald's as being somewhat less benign than it portrays itself in its ads.

There are currently 12 states that have "agricultural disparagement" laws, and 13 other states are considering them
While current libel laws would protect people like Steel and Morris from a protracted legal battle in the U.S., we may soon see McLibel-type trials in this country.

Agribusiness groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation have lobbied for laws that would make it illegal to claim that a food is unsafe for human consumption without having "sound" scientific evidence to back it up. The result of their lobbying is something known as "agricultural disparagement" laws.

Companies that produce perishable goods such as meat, produce, medicine, and tobacco would have the ability to sue anyone who claims that their product -- or anything used to process or preserve their product -- is unsafe. These laws would effectively shift the legal burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant.

There are currently 12 states that have these laws, and 13 other states are considering them. Since there's no agreement on what constitutes "sound" science, agricultural disparagement laws amount to a way to protect big food companies that routinely use dangerous pesticides and chemicals in growing and processing food from being critically investigated by the press.

Our society is seeing a boom in litigation. The legal system is being used by the powerful to silence those who are attempting to uncover wrongdoing. If we're to have a free society, we cannot allow people who want to speak truth to power to be intimidated by wealthy individuals and corporations who have unlimited resources to file libel suits.

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Albion Monitor July 21, 1997 (

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