Dear [Member of Congress],
“Libel tourism” is a grave threat to Americans’ First Amendment free speech rights, and I’m writing you today because the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation that would effectively put an end to the practice.
H.R. 2765, a bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), was marked-up by the Judiciary Committee last week. While it is an important step forward in combating the threat of “libel tourism,” it does not go far enough to deter wealthy individuals from filing libel suits against American citizens in countries with weaker free-speech protections.
Yet, a more useful bill, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, which allows authors, publishers, and others in my precarious position to countersue for damages, has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. It is sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (D-PA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and is widely supported by free speech groups and major newspapers around the country. Prominent legal advocacy groups such as the Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, PEN and the ACLU along with the editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times have endorsed the Free Speech Protection Act, as the right approach to libel tourism.
This additional measure is essential and without it, the threat of libel tourism will continue to intimidate American writers. Many legal experts have described this as the “chilling effect” on the media and publishing industries.
In my 2003 book Funding Evil, I exposed Saudi billionaire Khalid Salim bin Mahfouz as a major terrorist funder who had funneled millions of dollars to al-Qaeda and Hamas. At that time, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and other U.S. publications reported similar facts.
To silence his critics in the press, Mahfouz used the British plaintiff friendly libel laws and courts to sue more than forty American publishers and writers, including me. My intense legal battle with Mahfouz for my freedom of expression led to NYS Libel Terrorism Protection Act, aka “Rachel’s Law,” which was enacted in May last year. The law states that foreign libel judgments are unenforceable in New York courts. Similar laws passed in Illinois and Florida, and California, New Jersey and Florida are close to passing similar legislation.
I urge you to do the same by making sure that H.R. 2765 creates a federal cause of action that would allow American citizens to countersue. Without this deterrent foreigners using libel tourism, will continue rob Americans of their free speech rights.
Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld
Director American Center for Democracy