Floor Statement Immediately Following Vote Re: H.R. 2765

By Congressional Record | by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Monday, July 19th, 2010 @ 5:17PM

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Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, today the Senate has passed important bipartisan legislation to reduce the chilling effect that foreign libel lawsuits are having on Americans’ first amendment rights.

I am the son of printers and I consider this a matter of great importance. My parents told me from the time I was a child: Believe in and uphold the first amendment. It is the basis of our democracy. It guarantees us the right to practice any religion we want or none if we want. And it protects the right of free speech. Those protections guarantee diversity. If you have a constitution that guarantees diversity, you guarantee a democracy.

That is what this does. I wish to thank Senator SESSIONS, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for working with me on this bill.

Let me speak a little bit about what the bill does. The Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act or, as we call it, the SPEECH Act, will ensure that American courts will not enforce foreign libel judgments from countries where free speech protections are lower than what our Constitution affords against American journalists, authors, and publishers.

Too frequently, foreign plaintiffs bring libel suits against American writers and publishers in countries where the plaintiff or the publication lacks any significant connection to the foreign forum. The lawsuit is brought there because of that foreign country’s weaker plaintiff-friendly libel laws. This is known colloquially as libel tourism.

In other words, if somebody in the United States writes a book, probably very accurate, about some despot or some leader of a country who has done criminal acts, has stolen the property of that country or any one of a number of things—it could be very accurate and, in our country, truth is a defense—what they will do is maybe order online a couple copies of the books and deliver them to another country with weak libel laws and then seek judgments against the author, against the publisher, against newspapers that may have published excerpts of it; everything to chill any criticism of those who have either breached human rights or stolen from their own country and on and on.

On a broad scale, libel tourism results in a race to the bottom. It causes America to defer to a country with the most chilling and restrictive free speech standard determining what they can write or publish. This undermines our first amendment. The first amendment, as I said earlier, guarantees the diversity of thought and opinion in this country which actually allows and determines and guarantees that democracy.

The freedoms of speech and the press are cornerstones of our democracy. They enable vigorous debate, and an exchange of ideas that shapes our political process. Reporters, authors and publishers are among the primary sources of these ideas, and their ability to disseminate them through their writings is critical to our democracy. The broad dissemination of materials through the Internet, as well as the increased number of worldwide newspapers and periodicals, has compounded the threat of libel tourism.

This problem is well documented. Two years ago, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee observed that one country’s libel laws ‘‘discourage[d] critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affect[ed] the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work,’’ and ‘‘affect[ed] freedom of expression worldwide on matters of valid public interest.’’

Several States, to their credit, have enacted legislation to combat this problem, but we need a national response. While we can’t legislate changes to foreign laws that are chilling protected speech in our country, what we can do to uphold the right of free speech in our own country is assure that our courts do not become a tool to uphold foreign libel judgments that undermine American first amendment or due process rights. The SPEECH Act is an important step toward reducing this chilling of American free speech.

The SPEECH Act is an important step toward reducing this chilling of American free speech. Americans have a great gift in their right of free speech. Every single Senator, Republican and Democratic, should join, as we have in this case, to protect America’s rights.

The SPEECH Act is the product of hard work and extensive negotiations on both sides of the aisle, and the process is certainly mindful about principles of international comity. Many supporters would not have written this bill in this exact way, but all recognize that a bipartisan compromise is an important step in confronting the libel tourism issue. Without it, we could not pass this bill.

Among the supporters are the Vermont Library Association, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey,  the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Civil Liberties Union, Net Coalition, and renowned first amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams.

I would also like to recognize Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, Director of the American Center for Democracy, who herself has been the victim of a libel suit in the United Kingdom, and has been a tremendous advocate for Congressional action in this area.

I wish to thank Senators SPECTER, SCHUMER, and LIEBERMAN for their work in raising this important issue in the Senate and Representative COHEN for his hard work on libel tourism legislation in the other body. I am pleased the Senate has adopted this bipartisan legislation. I look forward to its prompt consideration and adoption by the House and to the President signing it into law.

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Categories: Free Speech & Libel Tourism, Supporting Free Speech