A bill aimed at protecting American journalists, writers and publishers from “libel tourism” cases brought against them in foreign courts has been introduced into the United States Senate.
The Free Speech Protection Act, which is being sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was introduced last night.
The bill is aimed at protecting journalists and publishers from libel suits in foreign courts which do not have the same protections for free speech as the US constitution.
The measure would give federal courts the power to bar the enforcement of foreign libel judgments if the material at issue would not constitute libel under US law.
It is also aimed at actively deterring “libel tourism” cases brought in foreign courts by permitting American defendants to counter-sue under certain circumstances.
The act would create a federal cause of action and jurisdiction so that federal courts would be able to decide whether there was defamation under US law when an American journalist, academic, writer or speaker was sued in a foreign court for speech or publication in the US.
Companion legislation is expected to be introduced into the House of Representatives.
Specter said: “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of expression of ideas, opinions, and research, and freedom of exchange of information are all essential to the functioning of a democracy, and the fight against terrorism.
“There is a real danger that American writers and researchers will be afraid to address the crucial subject of terror funding and other important matters without these protections.”
Lieberman added: “Supporters of Islamist terror are using foreign courts to silence journalists trying to expose those supporting terrorist networks around the world.
“This important bill will protect the constitutional rights of American journalists so that they can continue their work that is critical to the safety and security of our country.”
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.