Salman Rushdie Scores Court Victory

Salman Rushdie has won an apology from the writers and publishers of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, subtitled “My Incredible Life in the World’s Most Dangerous Close Protection Squad,” for fase statements in Ron Evans’ account of Rushdie’s time under protection by police. Rushdie was effectively condemned to death by a fatwa issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini after his book The Satanic Verses was ruled blasphemous against Islam, and spent a decade in hiding.

As reported by the Guardian, the statements admitted to be false included:

· That Rushdie was locked in a room by protection officers because of his objectionable attitude towards them;
· That protection officers who asked Rushdie if they could buy alcohol from him were charged for the drinks;
· That Rushdie sought to profit from the fatwa inviting Muslims to kill him for insulting the prophet Muhammad;
· That he sought and was advised by the Intelligence Services not to publish a book about his experiences;
· That safe houses were provided for Rushdie at Government expense, rather than having to provide them himself at great personal expense;
· That the relationship between Rushdie and his protection teams was unprofessional, hostile and unfriendly;
· That Rushdie was unhygienic;
· That Rushdie was suicidal and was being supervised or examined by a police psychiatrist;
· That Elizabeth West became his girlfriend and then his wife because of Rushdie’s wealth.

Ron Evans, through a statement made in court by his solicitor on August 26, apologized for the falsehoods. Rushdie did not seek any damages. However, as part of the resolution, publisher Evans and Thompson will pay Rushdie’s legal costs, estimated at around £15,000. Also, John Blake Publishing has destroyed the first print run of 4,000 copies of the book, and is correcting two chapters.

The victory was accompanied by an great deal of spin. Rushdie not only wanted vindication, he and his attorney wanted to take extra credit for supposedly doing nothing to impede freedom of speech. As the Courant reports:

Rushdie said Tuesday before the hearing that there was no parallel between the Muslims’ attempt to suppress his work of fiction and his legal action against Evans.

“There is a straightforward difference between the statement of opinion and the perpetration of untruth,” the Booker Prize-winning author said before the hearing. “Had he written a novel, there would have been no case. He would have had the defense of his imagination.”

Rushdie’s strategy of demanding an apology — without seeking a large financial award — is unusual for a celebrity-driven libel case in Britain, where plaintiff-friendly laws encourage the rich and famous to seek financial redress for attacks on their reputation. Rushdie said he sought to set the record straight while skipping damages that could impede free speech.

On the same principle, former President Theodore Roosevelt sued a newspaper over a 1912 story that said he was a heavy drinker and frequently issued torrents of “lies and curses” when drunk, receiving a retraction and apology, and a court award of six cents in damages. Rushdie was certainly entitled to defend his reputation, and probably could have imposed far greater economic consequences on the defendants, but as to his deserving praise for preserving freedom of speech, I’m inclined to save that praise for someone who shows Roosevelt’s forbearance.