Bringing An End To Libel Tourism

By The New York Times
Monday, September 29th, 2008 @ 5:01AM

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The House of Representatives has passed a good bill that would prevent American courts from enforcing libel judgments obtained in foreign countries if those countries provide less free speech protection than the United States does. The Senate should pass a companion bill before it recesses, and the president should sign it.

The bill on “libel tourism” strikes an important blow for free expression. American law imposes a high bar on libel lawsuits – far higher than many other countries. To get around these free-speech protections, some plaintiffs have been bringing lawsuits in Britain where libel protections are notoriously weak.

Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi Arabian businessman, sued American author Rachel Ehrenfeld in Britain for stating in her book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It” that he has been involved in financing terrorism. Mr. Bin Mahfouz says that charge is false. The book was not published in Britain, but because a few copies were sold there over the Internet, a British court heard Mr. Bin Mahfouz’s lawsuit and awarded him a substantial amount. He is now free to ask an American court to collect the judgment.

Foreign libel suits have a chilling effect on free speech in the United States. They make American authors think twice about writing on some subjects. Even if what they write is true, they may face the expense of defending a libel lawsuit in Britain brought by a wealthy plaintiff. Ms. Ehrenfeld maintains that American authors and publishers are steering clear of writing about terrorism financing because of fear of being sued overseas.

At Ms. Ehrenfeld’s urging, New York State enacted a law prohibiting the enforcement of foreign libel judgments from countries that have a lower legal standard for libel than the United States. But there should also be a federal law, so all American writers are protected.

The House bill, sponsored by Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, does not go as far as it could. It does not authorize writers and publishers to counter-sue for damages, as another House bill does, if they are sued for libel overseas in an attempt to suppress their free speech. Still, it would do the most important thing: prevent foreign libel judgments from eroding free-speech protection in the United States.

Now, the Senate needs to act. Senators Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York; Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania; and Joseph Lieberman, independent of Connecticut should work to get Mr. Cohen’s bill through their chamber before Congress leaves town.

Categories: ACD in the Media

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