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Federal law opposing ‘libel tourism’ approved by Congress

July 28, 2010 1 comment

By Rachel Ehrenfeld

NEW YORK–As the founder of the movement against libel tourism, I congratulate Congress foir unanimously passing HR 2765 (as amended by the Leahy-Sessions ‘Speech’ Act) on July 27th. A bipartisan bill, the ‘Speech’ Act is based on New York State’s “Libel Terrorism Protection Act” (also known as “Rachel’s Law”). The ‘Speech’Act marks the culmination of a national campaign I spearheaded following my own experiences with libel tourism.

It began when my third book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It, was published in the U.S. in the Fall of 2003. In Funding Evil, I documented how Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz funded al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Shortly after the book was published in the U.S., Mahfouz sued me for libel in London, attempting to use the plaintiff-friendly British libel laws to intimidate me into silence. Mahfouz had used this tactic to bully more than 40 authors and a publisher into apologies for and retractions of similar revelations. While British libel laws were often used by the rich and famous to silience and intimidate critisizm, the Saudi used the British laws and courts as a weapon in the lawfare against the American and Western media, and effectively “chillled” further exposes on Saudi and Gulf funders of terrorism.

I refused to acknowledge the British court’s jurisdiction over me as I did not live in England, nor was my book published or marketed there. The English court ruled against me by default, ordering that I pay a hefty fine, apologize, retract my statements and foot Mahfouz’s substantial legal fees.

Represented by Daniel Kornstein of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, I countersued Mahfouz in New York to prevent the enforcement of the default judgment on the grounds that it did not meet the standard of American First Amendment protections for free speech. When the court dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction over Mahfouz, the New York State Legislature, led by Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D), and Senator Dean Skelos (R)  acted quickly, and passed “Rachel’s Law,” in April 2008, enabling the New York courts to take jurisdiction over foreign libel plaintiffs who sue New York authors and publishers abroad.

Since then, seven states, including California, have passed similar protective legislation protecting their residents.

With the SPEECH Act Congress has taken action against libel tourism – a dire threat to our freedom and democracy. Representatives Cohen (D-TN), King (R-NY) and Senators Leahy (D-VT), Sessions (R-AL), Specter (D-PA), Lieberman (D-CT), Schumer (D-NY), Wyden (D-MN), and Kyl (R-AZ), and their dedicated staffs, made the ‘Speech’ Act a reality. They have taken a great step forward in securing the freedom of expression that our constitution guarantees.

The “Speech’ Act will uphold First Amendment protections for American free expression by guarding American authors and publishers from the enforcement of frivolous foreign libel suits, filed in countries that do not have our strong free speech protections. Such lawsuits are often used by “libel-tourists” in an effort to suppress the rights of American scholars, writers, and journalists to speak, write and publish freely in print and on the Internet.

The Act grants “a cause of action for declaratory judgment relief against a party who has brought a successful foreign defamation action whose judgment undermines the First Amendment,” and provides for legal fees. These measures will help diminish the severe chilling effect such suits have already had on journalists, researchers, the general media, particularly on matters of national security and public safety.

“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,” said Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN).  “I believe our First Amendment rights to be among the most sacred principles laid out in the Constitution.  It is vital we ensure that these rights are never undermined by foreign judgments.”

The editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, and the San Diego Jewish World, as well as organizations such as the Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Independent Book Publishers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and 9/11 Families for a Secure America, among others, have supported me in this important fight for free speech.

The unanimity of support for this bill in Congress demonstrates the importance of combating libel tourism and its chilling effects on free speech. With a stroke of his pen, signing the bill into law, President Obama will help ensure that authors and publishers maintain the right to freely wield theirs in the pursuit of legitimate research and scholarship.

That day will not come soon enough. But there is more to do.
As Senator Kyl observed; “The Congress needs to pass broader measures that permit U.S. citizens accused of libel in foreign courts to force their accusers to pay for legal fees incurred abroad and, in certain cases, additional damages. Libel tourism will continue to pose problems for Americans until those who bring foreign libel lawsuits are faced with the same kinds of financial risks they seek to inflict on others.”
 
In the meantime, my efforts against libel tourism have encouraged a libel reform movement in England and have led the British government to propose corrective legislation. I hope that the enactment of the “Speech’ Act helps spread a new trend toward libel law reform, enabling the media to report safely on matters of national security and public interest globally.

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Ehrenfeld is the director of the American Center for Democracy, based in New York

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Ehrenfeld salutes bill protecting First Amendment rights from overseas libel suits

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment

NEW YORK (Press Release)– Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It, and founder of the movement against libel tourism, praised Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), its Ranking Member, for introducing the “Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act” or the ”SPEECH Act” in the United States Senate today. The bill was formally placed before the entire Judiciary Committee.
 
The SPEECH Act will uphold First Amendment protections for American free expression by guarding American authors and publishers from the enforcement of frivolous foreign libel suits filed in countries that do not have our strong free speech protections. Such lawsuits are often used by “libel-tourists” in an effort to suppress the rights of American scholars, writers, and journalists to speak, write and publish freely in print and on the Internet.
 
The Act grants “a cause of action for declaratory judgment relief against a party who has brought a successful foreign defamation action whose judgment undermines the first amendment,” and provides for legal fees. These measures will help diminish the severe chilling effect such suits have already had on journalists, researchers the general media particularly on matters of national security and public safety.   

Based on New York State’s “Libel Terrorism Protection Act” (also known as “Rachel’s Law”), the SPEECH Act marks the culmination of a national campaign spearheaded by Dr. Ehrenfeld following her own experiences with libel tourism.
 
In Funding Evil, published in the U.S. in 2003, Dr. Ehrenfeld documented how Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz funded al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Mahfouz sued Dr. Ehrenfeld for libel in London, attempting to use the plaintiff-friendly British libel laws to intimidate her into silence. Mahfouz had previously used this tactic to bully more than 40 authors and a publisher into apologies for and retractions of similar revelations.
 
Dr. Ehrenfeld refused to acknowledge the British court’s jurisdiction over her as she did not live in England, nor was her book published or marketed there. The English court ruled against her by default, ordering her to pay a hefty fine, apologize, retract her statements and pay Mahfouz’s substantial legal fees.

Represented by her attorney, Daniel Kornstein of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, Dr. Ehrenfeld countersued Mahfouz in New York to prevent the enforcement of the default judgment on the grounds that it did not meet the standard of American First Amendment protections for free speech. When the court dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction over Mahfouz, the New York State Legislature acted quickly, and passed “Rachel’s Law,” in April 2008, enabling the New York courts to take jurisdiction over foreign libel plaintiffs who sue New York authors and publishers abroad. Since then, six states have passed similar legislation protecting their residents.
 
In May 2008, Reps. Peter King (R-NY) and Steve Cohen (D-TN), proposed similar bills in the House, and Senators Arlen Specter (D-PA) Joseph Lieberman (CT), and Charles Schumer (D-NY) sponsored the Free Speech Protection Act in the Senate. Dr. Ehrenfeld thanks their initiative and support, which have led to the introduction of the SPEECH Act.

The editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald, as well as organizations such as the Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Independent Book Publishers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and 9/11 Families for a Secure America, among others, have supported Dr. Ehrenfeld’s fight for free speech.

“The SPEECH Act, introduced today by Senators Leahy and Sessions, marks a critical victory in the fight for free speech and the advancement of our national security. Without the SPEECH Act, American writers, publishers, and Internet users, will continue to face an imminent threat of the enforcement of foreign libel suit when reporting on matters of public interest, including science, national security, health and personal safety.

With Congress’ action, other nations will no longer have a green light to attempt to silence American critics,” said Dr. Ehrenfeld. “We have attracted a broad spectrum of those who are interested in protecting free speech and enabling authors to write about national security and other issues. This is not a partisan cause. This is an American cause, and it’s time for Congress to protect its citizens.”
 
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Preceding provided by Rachel Ehrenfeld

Schumer, McMahon want U.S. to reimburse NYC for security costs of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed trial

January 4, 2010 Leave a comment

NEW YORK (Press Release) – Rep. Michael E. McMahon joined Senator Charles E. Schumer on Monday  in calling on the Obama Administration to reimburse the City of New York for all security costs for the upcoming trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.  These costs have been estimated at upwards of $75 million, which would place a tremendous burden on the City’s budget.

“The trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will mean round the clock police protection for lower Manhattan by the NYPD,” said Rep. McMahon.  “As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has stated, New York can handle this trial, but the people of New York City should not have to pay the cost of the policing needed to carry it out.  This trial is not just about New York City; it is about our country as a whole and how we deal with the terrorists who attack our way of life.  The people of New York have suffered so much already, it is unjust to expect that the costs of security for this trial to be paid only by our city.  It would force cuts to necessary programs, place an extreme burden on our police force and once again compromise New York City residents’ way of life.  The federal government needs to step and in and pay for the necessary security.”

“I am also calling on the Obama Administration to pay for any additional costs associated with this trial,” continued Rep. McMahon.  “This isn’t New York putting this terrorist on trial; it is America putting him on trial and New York should not pay for that burden alone.”

The funding proposed by Sen. Schumer and Rep. McMahon would come from the Obama Administration’s FY 2011 Budget.

The current security plan for the terror trials involves U.S. marshals handling security for the courthouse.  The FBI and NYPD would provide a supporting role with the specific charges of protecting the public and area surrounding the courthouse.  

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Preceding provided by Congressman McMahon