Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fighting libel tourism

Legislation aiming to protect American authors and publishers from so-called 'libel tourism' is back in play in the new Congress. The initiative was sparked by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld's refusal to acknowledge a British libel judgment obtained against her by Saudi financier Khalid bin Mafouz for her 2003 book, Funding Evil, How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It.

New York and Illinois have already passed state laws to protect their writers and publishers against such suits. On February 12, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) chaired a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the subject. Several expert witnesses testified, among them Dr. Ehrenfeld (click here for her oral testimony).

Cohen is expected to re-introduce a bill he first proposed last year. That legislation passed the House but died in the Senate. However, Rep. King and Senators Specter, Schumer and Lieberman have sponsored an alternate, more effective bill, entitled the Free Speech Protection Act.

What is the key difference between the two? The Free Speech Protection Act contain sanctions to counter libel judgments in foreign courts that violate U.S. First Amendment standards of free speech. Of these, the most significant are the ability of a U.S. writer or publisher to countersue, and to obtain damages. Lacking such provisions, American writers and publishers will still be vulnerable to intimidation and silencing by the likes of bin Mahfouz.

Let's hope the Congress chooses the bill with teeth in it.

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