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Freedom of Speech

It is in the public's interest that there be the widest possible dissemination of critical information about those institutions which dominate our lives and environment. There also needs to be vibrant public debate about what is really happening around us, and about the alternatives. It is imperative to counter the advertising, propaganda and views which these powerful institutions constantly churn out, and which is lapped up by the media.

Not content with their enormous influence over the media, the rich and powerful also benefit from special libel laws in the UK and most other countries to protect their 'reputation' - i.e. to enable them to intimidate and silence those who would criticise and expose them. Most people are completely unaware of the extent of the daily hidden censorship of the media - every critical book, film, article and piece is submitted to libel lawyers for checking before publication or transmission. Most of those which carry any risk of leading to a libel writ are simply pulled and binned. If something is published and results in a writ, generally a humiliating apology or settlement is made to avoid the massive costs of a case.

So why is this? The reason is that libel cases rarely even make it to court because defendants face years of long, drawn out, complex and archaic proceedings, all costing an absolute fortune: and Legal Aid is not available for libel cases. Anyone defending a libel action also has to prove, from primary sources of evidence, every single word which has been challenged - the prosecution can just sit back smugly and wait for the almost inevitable victory.

Such has been the experience with the McDonald's Corporation in the UK. Hundreds of groups, newspapers and individuals have received legal threats and then backed down and apologised. Such climbdowns are then cited by McDonald's as 'proof' the company was right, and as a warning to others. This has happened to, amongst many others, the BBC, Scottish TUC, Channel 4, The Guardian, the Vegetarian Society, labour research groups, local press, green groups... and even a kids theatre.

But court cases do not have to be about only legal procedures and verdicts. They can be turned into a public forum and focus for protest, and for the wider dissemination of the truth. This is what the defendants, the McLibel Support Campaign and local activists everywhere have achieved with the McLibel case. In the courtroom the tables have been turned and McDonald's have been put on trial. The support campaign has ensured publicity and the circulation of the truth, and campaigners and activists have distributed ever greater numbers of leaflets in the UK and worldwide - and now McSpotlight has arrived.

Any unjust law can be made unworkable by organised public non-cooperation and defiance, as has been shown by so many struggles throughout history. One of the most recent in the UK was the successful mass non-payment of the Government's Poll Tax, leading to its abolition. The right to criticise rich and powerful companies and institutions is an absolute necessity. Society must never tolerate the censorship of genuine and alternative voices for the truth. Any such unjust laws must be made unworkable and swept aside.

Loadsalinks on free speech