New York State Lawmakers Offer Legislation To Protect Authors

Sunday, January 13th, 2008 @ 6:12AM

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NEW YORK (AP) _ Two state lawmakers on Sunday announced details of proposed legislation aimed at protecting authors and journalists whose First Amendment freedoms to write about terrorism issues could be imperiled by libel lawsuits in foreign countries. The plan by Sen. Dean G. Skelos and Assemblyman Rory I. Lancman resulted from a ruling last month by the state Court of Appeals that existing state law did not protect Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of the book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed _ And How to Stop it,” from a British court’s libel judgment on behalf of Saudi billionaire Khalid Salim A. Bin Mahfouz.

Bin Mahfouz has filed more than two dozen lawsuits against authors’ works on the subject of terrorism financing, creating what Ehrenfeld’s New York-based attorney, Daniel Kornstein, has called a “chilling effect” on free speech. In a news conference on the steps of the New York Public Library, Skelos, a Rockville Centre Republican and Senate deputy majority leader, and Lancman, a Queens Democrat, said the London court’s action opened the door to “assault by foreign nationals seeking to silence public debate in America” despite free-speech protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. They said their proposal would amend the law to give New York courts jurisdiction in cases such as Ehrenfeld’s and declare such foreign judgments unenforceable unless the country involved provided free-speech protections equivalent to the First Amendment’s. “What this legislation does is protect American authors and journalists from being dragged into kangaroo courts over phony baloney libel charges in jurisdictions that don’t respect freedom of speech and of the press as we do here in the United States,” Lancman said. Noted First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, who was present, said no other country has protections as strong as those of the United States.

Ehrenfeld’s book, published in 2003, says Bin Mahfouz and his family provided financial support to al-Qaida and other “Islamist terror groups,” according to state court records. Bin Mahfouz sued Ehrenfeld in London’s High Court of Justice in 2005, saying 23 copies of her book had been bought there over the Internet and one chapter was posted on a television network Web site. Although the author did not acknowledge its jurisdiction, the court’s default ruling ordered her to pay a $225,000 judgment, declare her writings about Bin Mahfouz to be false, destroy existing copies of the book and apologize to the plaintiff. Bin Mahfouz has not tried to collect on the judgment, but his lawsuit represents a threat to authors and publishers, Kornstein said. Ehrenfeld has a case pending in U.S. federal court, contending that Bin Mahfouz sued in England because its libel laws were more favorable to plaintiffs than U.S. law. In response to a federal query, the state’s highest court ruled Dec. 20 that a long-arm statute covering business activities in the state did not include jurisdiction over Bin Mahfouz.


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