The "McLibel Two." (Libel Case Filed by McDonald's Corp. against Environmental Activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris)

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In the longest libel case in British history, two activists have stood up to a multinational corporation that rakes in $24 billion annually. The activists are challenging corporate use of the British legal system to elicit apologies from critics by threatening them with costly and time-consuming libel suits.

McDonald's issued writs to Helen Steel and Dave Morris, two environmental activists at London Greenpeace (which preceded and is not connected with Greenpeace International) in 1990 for distributing a six-page leaflet: "What's Wrong With McDonald's - Everything They Don't Want You To Know."

McDonald's charges that the defendants' leaflet libeled the company by claiming that it is responsible for environmental destruction and contributes to such diseases as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The leaflet covers issues ranging from environmental concerns and nutrition to employee exploitation and animal abuse.

British libel laws are heavily weighted toward the plaintiff. What has become known as the "McLibel" case is widely seen as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit. Not only do British libel defendants face extraordinary costs, but they have to prove the truth of their statements without the use of "secondary evidence" such as press releases or photographs. They can only use such primary sources as witnesses and official documents.

The so-called "McLibel Two" have adamantly defended their claims for more than three years. Unfazed by their lack of litigation experience or by McDonald's highly paid legal team, the dynamic duo have converted their homes into offices, where they fight on, backed by an international McLibel Support Campaign.

McDonald's won a major victory early in the trial, when Justice Roger Bell ruled that the company should be afforded a right to trial without a jury. McDonald's lawyers argued that the issues are "too complex" for a jury to understand. It also emphasized that it will not recover its costs and damages if it prevails in the suit, since the defendants are unemployed.

McLibel defendant Dave Morris says McDonald's knew the defendants were unemployed when it slapped the writs on them in 1990 and that did not deter the company then. "By putting forward this argument, they are saying blatantly that you have no right to a fair trial and to justice unless you are rich enough to pay for it."

Chewing the fat

Steel and Morris have defended both their nutritional and environmental claims. In October 1994, Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, testified that McDonald's food contains "significantly more fat than government guidelines and health authorities recommend." In a damning cross-examination, McDonald's Senior Vice President Edward Oakley admitted that the corporation did not have a department solely responsible for nutrition because it does not consider nutrition as important as marketing or communications.

Steel and Morris mounted a strong defense of their contentions that McDonald's was serving unnecessarily packaging-intensive products. The packaging for hamburgers and other hot McDonald's foods contained ozone-damaging hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and is "recycled" in only five of the chain's 550 restaurants in Britain. …