Defamatory in England to Call Someone Ugly

Steven Berkoff

Won a defamation judgment for being called ugly.

A 1996 English libel case reminds me of the old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “My psychiatrist told me I’m going crazy. I told him, ‘Doc, if you don’t mind I’d like a second opinion.’ He said, ‘Alright, you’re ugly too.’”

In Berkoff v. Burchill, an English court of appeals held that describing a person as ugly can constitute actionable defamation. No wonder people are flocking to England to take advantage of the country’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws. It’s highly doubtful calling someone ugly would be actionable defamation under U.S. law.

(By the way, this practice, known as “libel tourism,” resulted in enactment of a 2010 U.S. law that prohibits U.S. courts from enforcing foreign defamation judgments if they were rendered under legal protections less protective of speech than U.S. standards. Berkoff’s suit, against an English newspaper, was not a case of libel tourism.)

The English case arose from a Sunday Times article in which defendant Burchill reviewed the movie The Age of Innocence. Burchill described the film director, Steven Berkoff, as “hideous-looking.”

Nine months later, Burchill once again called Berkoff’s pulchritude into question, this time in a review of the movie Frankenstein. Describing “the Creature,” Burchill said: “It’s a very new look for the Creature—no bolts in the neck or flat-tap hairdo—and I think it works; it’s a lot like Stephen Berkoff, only marginally better-looking.”

Berkoff sued for defamation. The issue was whether calling someone hideous-looking is a defamatory statement capable of injuring a person’s reputation. The appellate court answered affirmatively.

The court said a jury could “conclude that in the context the remarks about Mr. Berkoff gave the impression that he was not merely physically unattractive but actually repulsive” and that this could injure Berkoff’s ability to make a living by “lowering his standing in the estimation of the public … [by] making him an object of ridicule.”

Is truth a defense? He looks okay in this picture (photo by Getty, borrowed from The Telegraph).

Berkoff v. Burchill, [1996] 4 All E.R. 1008 (Ct. App. 1996). Thanks to Heiner O. Mommsen.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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