A new report published by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel deals with the widespread use of libel suits and legal threats, including against ordinary citizens who protest or voice criticism. It describes a disturbing reality in which a growing number of people are afraid to participate in the public discourse due to fear of being sued and becoming embroiled in lengthy, expensive legal proceedings.
This is a serious blow to the already fragile fabric of democratic life in Israel. The examples cited in Or Kashti's article (which appeared in Haaretz in Hebrew last Friday) show how libel suits, or even just the threat that they might be filed, have turned into a tool for silencing people: a real estate company that didn't like the statements of an expert who posted warnings against it on a website; a contractor from the north who hired and sent a lawyer to threaten a citizen who had complained about him to the Israel Lands Administration; or the leaders of a major city, who used attorneys paid for out of public funds to threaten a resident who had erected a sign saying they had "buried him alive," to protest the construction of high-rise apartment complexes next to his home.
For each such example, it's possible to bring many more - from local governments where mayors sue opposition councillors who bother them, through organizations for social or environmental change that are exposed to delegitimization campaigns, to ordinary consumers who seek to complain about a rotten deal.
People in positions of power and authority have a built-in advantage in any public discourse, as they have the resources to disseminate their views and advance their interests by means of "silencing suits."
The solution to the dangers posed by such silencing suits is, first and foremost, to raise awareness of them, both within the legal system and among legislators. Other countries, such as the United States, have amended their laws to counter the negative influence of these suits. In Israel, however, existing law merely bolsters the deterrent power of such suits. In addition to raising public awareness of these attempts to abolish all criticism, members of the new Knesset, from both right and left, would do well to find a way to restore real substance to the right of freedom of expression.
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