Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues

Labor Activism Brings Spotlight to Freedom of Speech

4 Comments

Daniel Huchla

Have you ever wondered how your food is made?  More specifically, have you ever wondered if your food is produced ethically? There is one approach that aims to promote compliant business.[i]  The second approach is to expose unethical business practices through investigative journalism. For attempting to expose allegedly unethical practices Andy Hall faced the prospect of up to seven years in prison on the basis of the Thai law of defamation. What about freedom of speech and the press? Using U.S. law as a model, Thailand should modify its law to eliminate the possibility of criminal liability for defamation.

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Photo Credit: Kevin Casper – Public Domain Pictures

 

Andy Hall, a British lawyer and academic, collaborated with Finnwatch, a Non-Governmental Organization based in Finland, as a researcher on labor standards in the Food Industry in Thailand.[ii]  This venture resulted in the 2013 publication “Cheap Has a High Price”, exposing immigration and labor issues related to specific producers of tuna and pineapple products in Thailand.[iii]  As a result, Natural Fruit Company Ltd. lost business and brought suit against Andy Hall in Thailand alleging defamation.[iv]  During the course of the multiyear litigation there was a degree of public outcry from elements of the international community on Andy Hall’s behalf.[v] On September 20, 2016, the Bangkok South Criminal Court found Andy Hall guilty of criminal defamation and cybercrimes.[vi]  Hall received a suspended three year sentence and a 150,000 baht ($4,300) fine.[vii]  But, civil liability still looms in the distance, especially if Thailand follows res judicata, by which Hall could be precluded from arguing his civil liability since he has already been found criminally liable, which presumably has a higher standard of proof.[viii]

 

As a  sovereign nation, Thailand has control over the laws and their application within its borders. The issue of domestic sovereignty echoes the common phrase “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”[ix] Under Thai law, defamation can result in criminal and civil liability.[x] Criminal defamation is defined as “imput[ing] anything to the other person before a third person in a manner likely to impair the reputation of such other person or to expose such other person to be hated or scorned.”[xi] Because Mr. Hall’s work was published online (albeit in Finnish), he was additionally subjected to liability under the Computer Penal Code, which has stiffer penalties.[xii]

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Photo Credit: MBogdan – Mary’s Rosaries

Thailand does allow defenses in actions for defamation. A defendant may prove the truth of his statement, or if the plaintiff is a “subject of public criticism” the defendant may assert the statement was a “fair comment” made in “good faith.”[xiii]  In the case of Andy Hall it is uncertain where the gap exists that the defense of truth was unsuccessful. But, there has been criticism regarding the limited sample size for interviews, leading one to believe that the facts may not be inherently false, but just overgeneralized.[xiv]  That this is sufficient to find liability is an unfortunate byproduct of a system that places the burden upon the defendant to prove truth.

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What if Andy Hall had investigated a company in the United States instead? Under United States law, the company as Plaintiff would have to show that a false statement was made.[xv]  Changing the burden of proof in this instance would have drastic effect. If the publication was just overgeneralized, it would be equally difficult to prove the statement was false in the United States as it was to prove that it was true in Thailand. Even if the company were able to prove the statement to be false there are further protections for speech in the United States. Depending on whether the company is considered private or public, they would additionally be required to show either negligence or knowing culpability (“actual malice”) on behalf of Mr. Hall.[xvi] With all these protections, Mr. Hall likely would not have been found civilly liable for defamation in the United States. Within the U.S., there are several states that allow for criminal liability for defamation; but, these laws are confined by the same robust protections as civil defamation.[xvii]

However, these protections have not always existed in the United States. The law of defamation has evolved massively over the past sixty years in the United States. Prior to 1964, defamation allowed for per se liability.[xviii] Under this system, falsity was the only thing that needed to be proved.[xix] We don’t have to look very far in United States history for some level of liability to be foreseeable. This change additionally reflects that legal reform is possible and valuable.

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Going forward, what should be the reform priorities on this issue in Thailand? Ideally, the burden of proof should be shifted from the Defendant to the Plaintiff. Placing the burden upon the defendant can have a chilling effect on speech. The burden of proof coupled with criminal responsibility for defamation is guaranteed to limit speech. In this regard, Andy Hall is just the tip of the iceberg; a Thai woman is facing similar criminal charges for attempting to bring light to the alleged graphic murder of her relative.[xx]

Daniel Huchla is a third year law student at the University of Baltimore and a graduate of Miami University with a Bachelor of Music. During his undergraduate studies, he performed in an International Opera Festival located in Brazil. He also serves as Associate Managing Editor for the University of Baltimore Law Review. Areas of interest include Administrative Law, International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law, and National Security Law. He is currently a Law Clerk with the Law Offices of McCabe, Weisberg & Conway.

[i] http://fairtradeusa.org/about-fair-trade-usa/mission

[ii] http://www.finnwatch.org/en/news/408-andy-hall-found-guilty-in-a-shock-ruling-by-bangkok-court

[iii] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37415590

[iv] Id.

[v] See e.g. https://www.walkfree.org/andy-hall/

[vi] BBC, supra note iv.

[vii] Id.

[viii]  Finnwatch, supra note iii; see e.g. Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008).

[ix] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/when-in-rome-do-as-the-romans-do.html

[x] See Finnwatch, supra note iii.

[xi] https://www.samuiforsale.com/law-texts/thailand-penal-code.html#325

[xii] https://www.samuiforsale.com/law-texts/computer-crime-act.html

[xiii] http://kellywarnerlaw.com/thailand-defamation-laws/

[xiv] http://www.dw.com/en/rights-activist-andy-hall-sentenced-for-defaming-thailand-fruit-company/a-19562755

[xv] See Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767 (1986); 1 Law of Defamation § 5:13 (2d ed.).

[xvi] 1 Law of Defamation § 1:34 (2d ed.)

[xvii] http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/criminal-libel-statutes-state-by-state

[xviii] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

[xix] Id.

[xx] http://www.prachatai.com/english/node/6590

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Author: Ius Gentium

Ius Gentium is a legal forum for the University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows to write on and discuss international and comparative legal issues.

4 thoughts on “Labor Activism Brings Spotlight to Freedom of Speech

  1. Andy Hall’s case serves as an anecdote to showing comparative systems (US and Thailand) in regards to defamation. It would be interesting to also compare the defamation procedures in countries surrounding Thailand, as it was the only country in Southeast Asia to not be colonized by a European Power. Perhaps there are differing statutes and stances in the surrounding countries which were mainly colonized by the French and perhaps have defamation procedures that mirror those in France and/or Continental Europe. The burden of proof reversal to the defendant in such cases is foreign to US jurisprudence and that may be a result of Thai hegemony/influence free of any European colonization.

  2. It’s interesting that despite the fact that “the defendant may assert the statement was a ‘fair comment’ made in “good faith,” Mr. Hall was still found to be guilty. I read an article on his issue earlier and Mr. Hall was able to get migrant workers, who were mentioned in the report, to testify to the truthfulness of his statements. Coupling this incident with the fact that Thailand recently voted on a constitutional referendum which allows their military to play a major role in political matters, this case is the first step to silencing advocates of free speech.

  3. Do you believe U.S. style libel and defamation laws would fit well with the Thai legal system? I find it interesting how quick we are to recommend other countries adopt our laws as models without regard to the legal system and culture of the country upon whom we seek to foist our views.

    A case in point is the Japanese Constitution. Written by Americans over lots of coffee and sleepless nights, the Constitution is remarkably similar to our own. It was written in English then translated into Japanese. The Japanese delegation attempted to write their own modeled on the American “suggested” text. The Americans found the Japanese one too watered down and insisted on adherence to the U.S. version. The Japanese complained but were backed into a corner and complied. While in Japan, the “U.S.” Constitution was a success, we also stayed in Japan for a long time to ensure a successful transition from a monarchy where the emporer was literally a god to a democracy. I am exceedingly skeptical of whether such a feat could be repeated in a country such as Iraq or Afghanistan unless we committed to the same level of post conflict reconstruction as we did after World War II.

    • Thank you for your interesting question. I don’t believe I am necessarily advocating for an identical legal treatment. Just a flip of the burden of proving “truth.” I believe that you are correct that legal systems in order to be successful must reflect the culture and ideals of the people. As pictured above there are individuals in Thailand that support Andy Hall. I can’t draw conclusions about the entire population of Thailand, but it is quite possible this is a change that the people might support.

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