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McLibel defendants appeal verdict in record-setting libel case

September 3, 1997

LONDON (AP) _ Two vegetarian activists who fought McDonald’s Corp. in a marathon libel case said Wednesday they got an unfair trial _ despite their public relations victory over the hamburger giant.

Dave Morris and Helen Steel asked the Court of Appeal to throw out the rulings made by Justice Roger Bell in June, ending the 314-day ``McLibel″ trial that became the longest in British history.

``We’re calling for fundamental changes in libel laws to protect the public’s right to criticize rich and powerful organizations that dominate our society,″ Morris told a reporter outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

McDonald’s took Morris and Ms. Steel to court after they handed out anti-McDonald’s leaflets that called the company the epitome of evil, oppressive capitalism.

Morris, an unemployed former postman, and Ms. Steel, a part-time barmaid, lost the case when Bell found that the main thrust of their leaflets had falsely defamed McDonald’s.

But the defendants gained years of publicity for their cause and McDonald’s was humiliated when the judge found that some allegations against it were true. Bell ruled that McDonald’s is sometimes cruel to animals, pays low wages in Britain and exploits children through its advertising.

Shortly after the verdict, McDonald’s decided to stop pressing the matter. It did not seek to collect the symbolic damages of 60,000 pounds ($98,000) the judge awarded and it did not seek a court order halting publication of the anti-McDonald’s leaflets, which are being handed out by the thousands and are also on the Internet.

But Ms. Steel and Morris will keep fighting, and say that if they lose their appeal in Britain, they will take the matter to European courts where they think they could stand a stronger chance of outright victory.

The 21-page appeal filed late Wednesday alleged the trial was unfair because:

_McDonald’s had no right to sue because ``in a free and democratic society such corporations must always be open to unfettered scrutiny and criticism ...″

_Ms. Steel and Morris should have been able to defend themselves based on ``reasonable belief in the truth of the words complained of,″ rather than having to prove the truth of everything McDonald’s said was false.

_Ms. Steel and Morris were denied legal assistance and had to represent themselves, making the case fundamentally unfair as they went up against a team of top libel lawyers hired by McDonald’s.

_They were denied a jury.

_For about half of the trial, Ms. Steel and Morris were denied access to official transcripts. McDonald’s paid to have the transcripts made overnight, but stopped handing them to Ms.Steel and Morris because the two were allegedly using them to create anti-McDonald’s press releases.

McDonald’s in London did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

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