Among the various bills proposing amendments to Israel's Defamation (Prohibition) Law that were presented to the 18th Knesset, the most controversial one is the bill proposing an increase in the caps on statutory damages (without proof of special or general damage). The current NIS 50,000 cap (NIS 100,000 when the publication was intended to cause injury) will be replaced, if the bill is approved, by a NIS 300,000 cap (NIS 600,000 when the publication was intended to cause injury). This proposed massive change has ignited a heated public debate. The bill, according to its proponents, is targeted principally at the media. Its aim is deterrence and even punishment, accomplished by attaching a higher price tag to libellous publications while focusing on remedies and leaving liability tests (including defences) untouched.
I claim that this bill is both unnecessary and detrimental.
Based on case law from the eight-year period 2004–11 on damages awarded by Israeli courts in defamation cases – both damages awarded ‘without proof of damage’ (the plaintiff does not need to prove damage caused by the publication) and damages awarded for ‘general damage’ (some general damage needs to be proved) – I conclude that the spectrum of judicial discretion is sufficiently broad to accommodate any level of deterrence seen fit by the courts in any circumstances. The fact that average damages awards do not reach the statutory caps indicates that, for all practical purposes, legislative intrusion in the manner proposed is erroneous. As to the normative standards the bill strives to convey, I maintain that absent reasonable justifications based on identifiable changes in cultural, social or other circumstances over time, the attempt to change the currently accepted balance between the rights of reputation and freedom of speech in Israeli defamation law in terms of damages awards is also erroneous.
Even if some modification of the current balance between reputation and free speech, as a result of specified changes in circumstances, do indeed appear to be necessary, the particular content, form and measure of this specific bill – which have yet to be examined and assessed – do not seem to provide the right approach to achieve such modifications.