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Libel Tourism: A Vacation You Don't Want to Take

So what's the latest force to threaten writers' First Amendment freedom? It's not the present administration or the courts or even Congress... it's the Internet. As Adam Cohen describes in this New York Times story, because the Internet disseminates material published in the United States worldwide, authors and journalists otherwise protected by the First Amendment are finding themselves dragged within the purview of the more restrictive libel laws on the books in other countries. When plaintiffs use that fact to file a suit abroad that might not fly in the U.S., legal experts refer to this type of forum shopping as libel tourism

From Cohen's article, here's an example of how "libel tourism" works in practice:

[Rachel] Ehrenfeld is an American, and [her book] "Funding Evil" [which accuses Khalid bin Mahfouz of funding terrorism] was never published in Britain. But at least 23 copies of the book were sold online, opening the door for the lawsuit. When Ms. Ehrenfeld decided not to defend the suit in Britain, Mr. bin Mahfouz won a default judgment and is now free to sue to collect in the United States.

While the United States can't change foreign law, we can with the appropriate authorization, ignore it.  So Ehrenfeld has taken the lead in promoting legislation, which would block enforcement of libel judgments from countries that provide less free speech protection than in the United States.  New York passed such a law on May 1, and Congress is considering similar legislation for the entire nation.  In addition, the proposed Congressional bill would  allow American authors and publishers to countersue, and if a jury found that the foreign suit was an attempt to suppress protected speech, it could award treble damages.

In the meantime, libel tourism continues to exert a chilling effect on some writers and publishers, deterring those from moving forward with books about terrorist financing.  After all, visiting the inside of a courtroom overseas with an pricey lawyer serving a tour guide isn't the kind of vacation most people want to take.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on September 15, 2008 at 09:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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