The New York Times this week barred web surfers coming in through UK-based IP addresses from reading an article about the terror investigation which is currently ongoing in Britain. “Details Emerge in British Terror Case” read the Times headline, but surfers in the UK could get no further.
Prior restraint – the act of prohibiting the publication of information in the press – is unconstitutional in the United States, but the New York Times seems to be practicing a form of voluntary prior restraint with respect to its British readers. Prior restraint is not illegal in Britain, nor, for that matter, in many other countries, and press coverage of the investigation has been banned in Britain for fear that some of the information which would be published might prejudice the outcome of the case when it goes to trial.
Said a statement by the New York Times, â€œOn advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.â€?
The Times general counsel, George Freeman, explained that “…weâ€™re dealing with a country that, while it doesnâ€™t have a First Amendment, it does have a free press, and itâ€™s our position that we ought to respect that countryâ€™s laws.â€?
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This is by no means the first time that a country which utilizes prior restraint, such as Britain, has been up against a citizenry which has access to an Internet which knows no borders. More than a dozen years ago Canada, which also has legal prior restraint, issued a press ban in the infamous trial of Carla Homolka, and Canadians flocked to the Internet looking for information published in other countries.
More recently, and having learned from the Homolka fracas, a Canadian court issued a press ban in a trial not only banning coverage of the trial, but banning the Canadian press from publishing the Internet addresses of non-Canadian Internet sites which were covering the trial.
In the case of the New York Times, the British courts apparently don’t need to worry about trying to stop it, because the Times is self-censoring.
So, sorry to all you Brits out there looking for information on the terror case, but if the action of the New York TImes is any measure, you’re not going to be able to find it by crossing the Atlantic on the Internet.
Even though abolishing the tradition of prior restraint was important enough to our founding fathers that freedom of the press was guaranteed in the First Amendment.
And don’t try flying to the U.S. to read the news either, because we just may ask for your passport and proof of citizenship before we sell you a paper.
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