The governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, yesterday signed a law that will allow the state’s courts to refuse to enforce British libel judgments. It effectively negates the practice of libel tourism. It is symbolic of the growing opposition in the States to Britain’s libel laws, which are in conflict with the US constitution’s first amendment protecting freedom of speech. The California legislation now gives courts power to block libel judgments from Britain which has, say politicians, “become a jurisdictional Mecca for the rich and famous”. They see the move as putting foreign jurisdictions like Britain under pressure to change their laws “to place greater protections on free speech.” In a classic statement of the difference between US and British press freedom, the state’s senate rules committee said its new law would “diminish the chilling impact of libel tourism on aggressive reporting about important international issues.”
The California law echoes one enacted by the state of New York in March 2008, called the libel terrorism protection act, which is the direct result of the Rachel Ehrenfeld controversy. Ehrenfeld was sued in London by a Saudi Arabian businessman over her 2003 book on terrorist financing, Funding Evil, which asserted that the man and his family had provided financial support to Islamic terrorist groups. Though her book was not published in Britain, some 20 copies had been purchased online through UK-registered websites and excerpts had been published online. Ehrenfeld, who chose not to defend the action, was criticised by the judge, Justice David Eady, who ruled that she should pay $10,000 to each plaintiff plus costs, apologise for false allegations and destroy existing copies of her book.
The decision outraged many American politicians, journalists and lawyers who believe the British courts are inhibiting freedom of expression. Ehrenfeld has also turned into a campaigner on the issue. She wrote last week in protest against Canada’s libel laws, Rescue writers from scourge of libel tourism. Two other states, Illinois (in August 2008) and Florida (in May this year) have passed legislation to shield people from libel judgments made outside America.
There is also a proposal to create a federal US law, the Free Speech Protection Act, to bar American courts from enforcing libel judgments issued in foreign courts against US residents if the speech/editorial content would not be considered libellous under American law. Today’s Daily Mail makes very clear where it stands on the issue in an editorial that refers to London as “the libel capital of the world”. It concludes: “Doesn’t it shame us that one American state after another… has found it necessary to pass laws protecting its citizens’ freedom of expression from the book-burning rulings of the British courts?”
Sources: Daily Mail/NY Daily News/Social Science Research Network/Weil Gotshal guardian.co.uk ﾩ Guardian News and Media Limited 2009