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New York Times bars UK readers to avoid court wrath

The New York Times has withheld publication of an article from UK readers of its website in order to avoid prejudicing a trial. The publisher has used its advertising system to identify the location of UK readers and block the article from them, it said.30 Aug 2006

The issues of libel, defamation and the prejudicing of trials have always been problematic in online publishing since information on the internet can generally be read all over the world. While a US newspaper might be perfectly within its rights publishing an article on suspects in a UK trial, it must ensure that that article is not published in the UK if it is to avoid prejudicing that trial, an application of what is known as the sub judice rule.

The New York Times has said that it has found a way to ensure that it did not publish the article in electronic form in the UK in order to stay legal in Britain.

Users in the UK who click on a link to the story headlined 'Details emerge in British terror case' receive the following message: "This Article Is Unavailable. On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial."

The newspaper said that it had already planned to make sure that print versions and newswires available in Britain did not contain the article, and that it wanted to try to extend the same restrictions to the website.

Richard Meislin, who is the managing editor of internet publishing at the group, told The New York Times that its web advertising technology could already identify the location of the internet address of its users, which was helpful in targeting users with specific advertising. He told the paper that it was used to ensure that no UK residents could see the offending article.

"The approach of The New York Times is very clever," said George Lubega, a litigation expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. "They are saying they are doing all they can not to be in contempt of court while still exercising their right to publish in other countries."

Lubega said that any contempt of court charges would be criminal and that reporters could end up in jail. Simple attempts to avoid the law, he said, would be unlikely to be successful. "If you publish in America and the information finds its way back to Britain in any way that is predictable, i.e. the original US publishing was a sham, then you are in contempt of court," he said.