Enacted in 13th century England, the series of laws known as De Scandalis Magnatum (literally, libels upon peers) made it illegal knowingly to spread false rumors that cause public mischief. The goal of the statutes was to preserve good relations between the Crown and the nobility as well as among the nobles themselves.
Scandalis Magnatum made it illegal to spread false rumors
Unlike other forms of libel, Scandalis Magnatum did not require that the false news or tale be directed at an individual. For example, in an early 19th century case, the accused was charged with raising the price of public funds by spreading false rumors about the death of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Further, early punishments for violating Scandalis Magnatum could be draconian. In Elizabethan England the penalty for spreading false rumors was to have one’s right hand chopped off (in cases of libel) or one’s ears chopped off (in cases of slander).
The laws were rarely enforced, though. The developing law of libel and slander replaced Scandalis Magnatum for defamatory statements directed at individuals. As a result, the British repealed the Scandalis Magnatum statutes in 1888.
Canada had Scandalis Magnatum laws
The United States never adopted a counterpart to the laws. In Canada, however, the authors of the 1892 Canadian Criminal Code, who relied on an 1880 treatise as their source for English law, adopted Scandalis Magnatum four years after its repeal in Britain.
The Canadian False News Law, as it came to be known, made it illegal knowingly to spread false news that harmed the public interest. Like its repealed counterpart, the Canadian False News Law was rarely used. The sole successful prosecution was R. v. Hoaglin, 12 C.C.C. 226 (1914), in which the accused was prosecuted for asserting that Americans (that is, settlers from the United States) were not welcome in Canada.
Later, in an influential 1952 law review article, F. R. Scott suggested that the False News Law could be used to target anti-Semitism and other hate speech. Scott’s suggestion lay dormant until the 1980s, when a group of Holocaust survivors persuaded the government to prosecute Ernst Zundel for publishing Did Six Million Really Die?, a pamphlet that denied the Holocaust.
After two trials, in which juries twice found Zundel guilty, the Canadian Supreme Court, in R. v. Zundel, 95 D.L.R. (4th) 202 (1992), ruled by a 4-3 vote that the False News Law violated the protection of free expression enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This article was originally published in 2009. Professor Rob Kahn teaches at St. Thomas University School of Law in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His 2004 book Holocaust Denial and the Law: A Comparative Study (Palgrave 2004) dissertation examines Holocaust denial litigation. He has also written on topics such as cross-burning in the United States, blasphemy regulation and the defamation of religions debate, and use of law to ban statements about the past.