Monsanto legal move sparks civil rights row

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PRINCE CHARLES and Tony Blair could soon receive legal notices from the biotechnology giant Monsanto, which is seeking legal powers to identify people who have received a campaign handbook from the pressure group Genetix Snowball.

The company wants to be granted a court order allowing it to find out the names of the 650-odd recipients of the book on the grounds that by reading the book, a person could legally be described as a "conspirator", and so would be covered by an existing injunction made in July against the authors.

The Handbook for Action, published in December, provides a guide to identifying sites where genetically modified crops are being tested, and describes how to uproot the crops, which would disrupt the trials. In the past two years people claiming to act for Genetix Snowball have torn up dozens of GM trial sites around Britain.

After those disruptions, Monsanto obtained an injuction against six members of the group to stop them trespassing on various pieces of land.

While the Prince and the Prime Minister are the highest-profile names to whom the book has been sent, a new court order - if granted - would require Genetix Snowball to hand over the names and addresses of everyone who asked for a copy of the book. Civil liberties groups criticised what they saw as a corporate attack on free speech. John Wadham, of the civil rights group Liberty, said: "The collection and retention of names and addresses of people by Monsanto is very worrying for us. These could be people who have merely read a book and are in subsequent danger of being caught up in court proceedings when they have done nothing wrong."

Monsanto said: "We are not against freedom of speech. It is just that the book's recipients need to be notified, because if they take action then the responsibility would ultimately fall on to the defendants at Genetix Snowball." The penalty for breaking the injunction is up to two years in prison.