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McDonald’s Argues Vs. Libel Appeal

January 13, 1999

LONDON (AP) _ Lawyers for McDonald’s on Wednesday rejected the claims of two vegetarian campaigners that their pamphlet attacking the multinational corporation should be protected as an expression of free speech.

Dave Morris, 44, and Helen Steel, 33, are seeking to overturn a 1997 judgment that they had defamed McDonald’s by distributing pamphlets entitled ``What’s wrong with McDonald’s? Everything they don’t want you to know.″

At the start of their appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday, Morris and Steel told the three-judge panel that Britons should be free to criticize corporations in the same way they can criticize government agencies.

They contended the pamphlet was a statement of opinion, deserving of protection as free speech.

Richard Rampton, lead lawyer for McDonald’s, argued that while an elected government does not have the right to sue citizens for libel, the same does not apply ``to the rights of individuals or corporations to protect themselves from unwarranted damage to their reputation.″

There must be a balance, he said, between freedom of speech and the protection of the reputation or rights of others.

If a corporation were not allowed to sue for libel, Rampton said, ``there would be damage to commercial interests on an enormous scale,″ and to the nation’s financial system.

The case, widely known as McLibel, was the longest trial in English history, at 314 days in court, spread over 2 1/2 years.

Although McDonald’s won the judgment, it was embarrassed when the judge ruled that substantial parts of the leaflet were true. He said McDonald’s was, in fact, responsible for animal cruelty, that it exploited children through its advertising and that it paid workers in Britain poorly.

Morris and Steel, who are unemployed, conducted their own defense and McDonald’s is estimated to have spent $16 million on the case. The corporation did not bother trying to collect its winnings of $98,000 in damages from the defendants.

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