US libel tourism bill one step closer to becoming law

A bill in the US to stop “libel tourism” has been passed by the House Judiciary Committee, the first step to becoming law.

Sponsors of the bill say it has been designed as a way to protect US journalists from libel suits in foreign courts which do not have the same protections for free speech as the US constitution.

Libel tourism is a growing phenomenon, where people travel to the UK to sue for material which would be protected elsewhere.

Congressman Steve Cohen is one of the sponsors of the bill, which aims to prohibit “recognition and enforcement of foreign defamation judgments”.

According to Cohen, who is chairman of the Commercial and Administrative Law Sub-committee, UK libel laws are stifling free speech.

He said in a statement: “Libel tourism threatens to undermine the principles of free speech because foreign courts often don’t place as difficult a burden on plaintiffs in libel cases.

“I believe our First Amendment rights to be among the most sacred principles laid out in the Constitution, and I will use all of my powers as a Congressman and member of the Judiciary Committee to ensure that these rights are never undermined by foreign judgments.

“I commend my colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee for passing this bill and hope that the Speaker will schedule a vote on this measure very soon.”

Press Gazette understands that the bill is expected to come up for a vote in the full House of Representatives on Monday.

No amendments will be allowed and the bill will require a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority in order to be passed. The bill would then need to be approved in the Senate.

Local laws banning libel tourism have already been passed in the states of New York and Illinois. Similar bills have been introduced in California, Florida, New Jersey and Hawaii.

The proposed legislation follows the case of Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, a US citizen and director of the New York-based American Centre for Democracy, who was sued in London over her 2003 book, entitled Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It.

Although the book was only published in the US, by an American publisher, Ehrenfeld was sued for defamation in London by Saudi millionaire Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz and his two sons, on the basis that 23 copies of the book were sold into the English jurisdiction via the internet, and because the first chapter was available on the Internet.

Ehrenfeld refused to respond to the litigation, and Sheikh Bin Mahfouz and his sons were given summary judgment, a total of £30,000 in damages, plus their costs.

Ehrenfeld was ordered to withdraw the statements about which they complained and to apologise.

The case has already led to the States of New York and Illinois passing legislation which allows their courts to block the enforcement against resident authors and publishers of the decisions of foreign courts in libel cases if the State courts decide that the protections given to free speech in those courts did not meet that given under US law.

The UK has become a popular venue for “libel tourism” defamation cases. Claimants from around the world have sought to take advantage of what are seen as England’s claimant-friendly defamation law.

English law, unlike that in the US, does not require a claimant to prove falsity or actual malice.

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