One Signature Away From Protecting Freedom

By | by Star-Gazette Editorials
Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 @ 5:45AM

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Paterson should sign law to prevent foreign libel laws from applying to New Yorkers. In societies in which people govern themselves and hold public officials accountable, the ability to freely gather and share information is critical. But government officials on the receiving end of public scrutiny do not always agree that robust discussion is a good thing. Therefore, two pieces of legislation, one national the other state, bear watching.

On the national scene, the Bush administration is invoking national security concerns to urge Congress to narrow provisions of the “Free Flow of Information Act.” The act would be a national shield law, permitting journalists to safeguard the identities of people who provide them confidential, sensitive and yes, sometimes embarrassing, information held by governments.

Reminding the Senate, where the act is pending, of its fear of all things remotely suggestive of terrorism, four members of the president’s Cabinet wrote separate letters to senators last week. In their letters, they argued that the bill’s definition of “journalist” is too broad and, that its protections will encourage more leaks of classified information to the media and that its existence will strengthen the counterintelligence efforts of our adversaries. Fighting terrorism should not mean suspension of the rights that make our nation strong and need not require that our government function in secret. If we are to hold public officials accountable, more information on their activities, not less, is needed. As the world becomes a smaller place, and boundaries to the sharing of information all but disappear among free nations, Americans can find freedoms we take for granted attacked by courts abroad.

To provide some protection, we urge Gov. David Paterson to sign into law an amendment to New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules. The change, unanimously passed by the state Legislature on March 31, makes civil judgments in libel and defamation cases levied against Americans in foreign courts unenforceable unless the foreign nation provides the same free speech protections as those guaranteed under American law. The measure was made necessary because of a judgment last year against a New York author who was sued for libel by a Saudi businessman in a British court.

The author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, named the businessman as a supporter of terrorism in her book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Funded — and How to Stop It.” She sold 20 copies of her book in England, where libel laws favor the plaintiff. New York law did not allow this state’s courts to shield Ehrenfeld from the $225,000 judgment.

Upon Paterson’s signature, New Yorkers will not have to bite their tongues for fear of being harassed in court for offending a reader or listener in a country that lacks free speech protection. The professional media benefit, but so do authors, playwrights, broadcasters and bloggers. If we are to live in a global village, the laws of selected nations cannot be used as weapons to stifle discussion. This nation is built on a foundation of robust discussion and free exchange of information. Measures that work against those basic premises, whether imposed by a foreign court or an administration with a penchant for secrecy, are fundamentally un-American.

Categories: ACD in the Media

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