British Libel Case Comes to the U.S

By Hernandez, Debra Gersh | Editor & Publisher, June 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

British Libel Case Comes to the U.S


Hernandez, Debra Gersh, Editor & Publisher


A BRITISH LIBEL case has found its way to the United States, and some of the nation's largest media companies have weighed in against enforcing the judgment here. In their amici curiae (friends of the court) brief, the U.S. media companies and associations warned that "the danger that enforcement would pose to the U.S. press cannot be overstated."

Those signing on to the brief include the New York Times Co.; the Associated Press; the Washington Post; Dow Jones & Co.; News America Publishing Inc.; Advance Publications Inc.; Hearst Corp.; Times Mirror Co.; Cable News Network Inc.; American Broadcasting Co. Inc.; National Broadcasting Co. Inc.; Copley Press Inc.; Magazine Publishers of America Inc.; Association of American Publishers Inc.; the Society of Professional journalists; Article 19-The International Centre Against Censorship; and Interights -- The International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights. The case began in 1984, when the London Daily Telegraph published an op-ed article by Vladimir Telegraph, a Russian emigre who had worked for the BBC's Russian Service. The article, in part, was about the service and the ethnic origins of its Russian broadcasters.

In response, Vladimir Matusevitch, also a Russian emigre, who was working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, wrote a letter to the editor, which was published, accusing Telnikoff of being a racist, among other things.

Telnikoff wrote a rebuttal, which the newspaper also published, and then sued Matusevitch for libel.

In 1992, Telnikoff received a judgment of 240,000 pounds from a British jury that agreed with his claim.

Matusevitch, who was by then living in Germany, did not pay.

After the trial, Matusevitch -- who was born in the U.S., brought to the Soviet Union as a child by his parents, and later emigrated to Europe -- was transferred by his job and moved to Maryland.

In 1993, Telnikoff filed in Maryland state court for judgment of $370,800 from the U.K. case that case was dismissed, by stipulation of both sides.

At the same time, Matusevitch filed a federal civil rights action, which ended up in District Court in Washington, D.C.

The District Court in D.C. granted summary judgment to Matusevitch, ruling that recognition and enforcement o the British judgment would violate the First Amendment.

The dismissal was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It sent the participants back to Maryland, in order to decide pending issues of state law before the federal court makes it a ruling.

Matusevitch's lawyer, Amon D. Siegel of Davis Polk & Wardwell, said the appeals ruling was "not unexpected."

Siegel explained that his client made two concurrent claims: One was that enforcement of the judgment violated the First Amendment; and the other wa that it could not be enforced because under Maryland law, its courts do not have to recognize foreign judgments found to be "repugnant" to state law.

"They're not dismissing the case. It's like asking for advice," he said of the appeals ruling.

Although both sides are slated to present further arguments before the Maryland court, their core positions on the issue were well spelled out in their briefs to the federal appellate court.

In his federal appeals brief, Telnikoff pointed out that the case does not involve the American media, nor does it make any attempt to curtail or regulate speech in the United States.

"The policies of the First Amendment should limit enforceability of a foreign judgment or the applicability of foreign libel laws only where enforcement of foreign law would chill freedom of expression in this country," Telnikoff's legal brief asserted. "Matusevitch's defamatory publication had no actual or potential impact upon speech in the United States."

The brief, prepared by Washington attorney Forrest A. Hainline III, further argued that, "No overriding interest protecting speech in this country operates to override comity and prevent Telnikoff from registering and enforcing his parochial British judgment for a libel published by a British resident in a London newspaper. …

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