"A Town Called Sue"

By New Statesman | by Brendan O'Neill
Monday, July 24th, 2006 @ 8:11PM

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“This is libel imperialism. It’s more than 200 years since America won independence from Britain, yet we’re still being punished by your archaic laws.”

Rachel Ehrenfeld, an Israeli-born author now living in midtown New York, is angry. In May last year she was sued by a Saudi billionaire after she made allegations about him in her book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop it. Though she is an American citizen, and her book was published in America, she was sued at the high court in London. As a result, Ehrenfeld has a ᆪ30,000 English libel judgment hanging over her American head.

But she isn’t accepting the judgment lying down. This month – supported by the Authors Guild, Forbes Inc, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Amazon.com and other assorted publishing bigwigs – she launched an appeal in New York to have the ruling declared “antithetical to the American constitution’s guarantee of a free press”.

Ehrenfeld has been writing about terrorism for 20 years. She specialises in tracing the cash trails behind terror groups. After 9/11, she wrote Funding Evil, but when she and her publishers, Bonus Books, refused to retract the allegations about the Saudi billionaire, they were sued in London. In May 2005, Mr Justice Eady ordered Ehrenfeld and her publishers to stump up ᆪ30,000 in damages, plus costs. Ehrenfeld refused to turn up to court. “Why should I?” she asks. “I do not recognise the court’s jurisdiction over me.”

She points out that her book was not published in Britain, and was not available in British bookshops. She was sued in London on the basis that 23 copies were bought by individuals in Britain via internet booksellers. “I’m an American writer, published in America. Why sue me in England?”

She says the case would probably have been chucked out of court in the US, where defamation laws are more progressive than here. Under English libel law, the claimant doesn’t have to prove that the defamatory statement was false, only that it was potentially damaging to his reputation; in the US, claimants must prove falsity. “Your laws have a chilling effect on free speech, in Britain and beyond,” Ehrenfeld told me. She says two publishers have cancelled books that cover similar ground to hers. Some US publishers are considering restricting the availability of their books in Britain for fear of “libel tourism”. (Not for nothing is London known as “A Town Called Sue”.)

After the court case against her, Ehrenfeld was unable to attend a high-level meeting with police and government officials in Britain last year to discuss how to cut off terrorist funding, because she feared that proceedings would be brought against her to force her to pay the ᆪ30,000 damages. So, while the government devises ways to keep out those who allegedly pose a terrorist threat, the courts are in effect keeping out an academic known for her expertise in how to deal with the terrorist threat.

“Everyone loses out as a result of your libel laws,” says Ehrenfeld. “Publishing is harmed, free speech is undermined, and the fight against terrorism can be hampered, too. That is why I’m challenging this ruling.”

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