The digital age has made mountains of information available. It should make important reporting more available, too, but because of some recent developments in libel law, that is not necessarily the case. While freedom of the press remains strong in the U.S., where it is guaranteed in the Constitution, it is under fire in other parts of the world. In recent opinion columns, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have sounded alarms over several fronts that threaten a free press globally. Subjects of negative stories may forgo a lawsuit in the U.S., figuring American protections set the bar too high for plaintiffs, and instead file a lawsuit in Britain. In the U.S., the subject would have to prove that the book or article was false, defamatory and recklessly reported; under British law the burden of proof is on the author to prove that the reporting is true. Result: Important stories may not get reported and written.
Exhibit 1 is the work of Rachel Ehrenfeld, who wrote a book in 2003 alleging that a prominent Saudi businessman financed Islamic terrorism. The book was published in the United States and not widely available elsewhere, but because a few copies were sold over the Internet in England, British courts allowed the Saudi businessman to sue for libel. This sort of “libel tourism” is a not just a threat to the livelihood of writers. It threatens important investigation that only a free press can do. New York and Illinois have already adopted laws prohibiting “libel tourism,” and two more – Florida and California – may follow them. But a nationwide remedy is needed.
A bipartisan bill filed by two New York congressmen would allow writers to countersue for treble damages. Congress should act on that bill, or some version that protects legitimate reporting from the global court shopping by the rich and powerful. “If information cannot be freely exchanged, if journalists must fear being sued over information reported in good faith on matters crucial to our defense, matters such as the financial networks supporting jihadist terror, then we cannot make sound security policy,” former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy said at a conference on international libel law. As L. Gordon Crovitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the use of friendly courts could allow plaintiffs to suppress reporting about radical Islam and terrorism. “The Web means publishing anywhere means publishing everywhere, thus subjecting authors and publishers to litigation in pro-plaintiff jurisdictions Crovitz wrote.” Exposes that meet U.S. standards for fairness and accuracy may not get published anywhere for fear of litigation.
The Internet has the power and reach to expand freedom by making sure people around the world have information about what their country and other countries are doing. We should at least do our part in the U.S. by making sure that material published here is protected from lawsuits brought in overseas courts.