State of California launches bill to block 'libel tourism'

California has become the latest US state to start along the road to legislation to block judgments obtained in English and other foreign courts in “libel tourism” cases.

Senator Ellen Corbett, the Democratic chairwoman of the state senate’s judiciary committee, has introduced a bill into the senate which mirrors the legislation enacted last year by the states of New York and Illinois.

Senator Corbett’s bill, which is sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association (CNPA), would ban California’s courts from recognising a judgment in a defamation case obtained in a foreign jurisdiction unless the court first determined that the law provided at least as much protection as is offered by the First Amendment.

It would protect journalists, writers and publishers who live and work in California, whose work is published in the state, or who would have to take positive action in the state to satisfy any foreign judgment.

The move comes after Senators Arlen Specter and Joseph Lieberman introduced similar federal legislation into the federal senate late last year.

The CNPA reported: “The Corbett Bill is intended to stop the increasingly popular practice of suing US journalists and authors in libel-friendly foreign courts, and then attempting to enforce the judgment, usually obtained by default, in a California court.

“British libel law, for example, presumes a statement is false and places the burden of truth on the defendant. It has become a jurisdictional Mecca for the rich and famous.

“On the other hand, US law, and especially California, places difficult burdens on plaintiffs to prove falsity and defamatory content, and requires them to clear many other tall hurdles intended to protect free expression under the First Amendment.”

The legislation follows the case of New York-based academic and writer Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued in London by Saudi Arabian billionaire Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz and his two sons over her book, Funding Evil, How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop it.

The book was only published in the US, but Sheikh Bin Mahfouz was able to sue on the basis that 23 copies of the book were sold into England and Wales via the Internet, and because one chapter was available on the Internet.

Although Ehrenfeld refused to respond to the claim, Sheikh Bin Mahfouz and his sons were each awarded £10,000 in damages on summary judgment, and Ehrenfeld was ordered to pay costs, apologise and withdraw statements in the book.

The CNPA said it and Senator Corbett hoped her bill would limit the legal exposure of California writers, diminish the chilling impact of libel tourism on aggressive reporting about important international issues, and ultimately, pressure foreign jurisdictions such as Britain to change its laws to give free speech greater protection.

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