"The Libel Tourist" is a short-form documentary film produced by the Moving Picture Institute. It focuses on an author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, who wrote a book on the funding network for terror. Her book focuses in part upon Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire banker and reports upon his bank's part in the trail of terror money. The book derives its odd title from an anomaly in British law, which is very hard upon publishers and biased against them. It is being used by foreign nationals who would not stand a chance in other venues. They travel to Britain to exploit its legal code to repress free speech Although Ms. Ehrenfeld's book,
Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — And How to Stop It, was published in the United States, she was sued in British court by Khalid bin Mahfouz.
How was he able to involve the British legal system? Bin Mahfouz arranged to buy twenty three copies of Ms. Ehrenfeld's book in Britain. This was enough under British law to make her liable to that country's courts. Bin Mahfouz was expecting to trumpet yet another victory. Many writers and publishers before Ehrenfeld had settled with him. This case proved to be different. Ms. Ehrenfeld did not even bother to show up in court. Bin Mahfouz was awarded a default judgment of a quarter of a million dollars. Instead of fighting him in British court, she counter sued Bin Mahfouz in American court saying that the judgment should not be enforced. Her reason was that her book was not defamatory according to American law.
Ehrenfeld suffered a setback when her case was thrown out. The grounds were that New York State courts had no jurisdiction over bin Mahfouz. In response, the New York state legislature signed into law a bill protecting residents of New York from similar lawsuits. In May of 2008, Governor Patterson of New York signed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act into law. Upon signing the bill he noted as follows: "New Yorkers must be able to speak out on issues of public concern without living in fear that they will be sued outside the United States, under legal standards inconsistent with our First Amendment rights. This legislation will help ensure the freedoms enjoyed by New York authors."
According to The New York Governor's website ‘Currently, libel plaintiffs can bring suit against an author in a country where the author sold only a few books. Foreign libel laws frequently place significant and expensive burdens on authors to defend their work. The statute combats such "forum shopping" in two ways. First, it bars New York courts from enforcing a foreign libel judgment unless the country where it was decided grants the same or better protection as US standards for freedom of speech. Second, it expands an individual's ability to have a court declare a foreign libel judgment invalid in New York. Without this statute, an author could be forced to live indefinitely under the pall of a libel judgment, deterring publishers from disseminating that author's work."
With the passage of the New York State law, New Yorkers are well protected, as long as they own no assets in states that are not protected by the law. Fortunately, there is Federal legislation under current consideration that would offer American citizens the same protection as that now only offered to New Yorkers. According to Dr. Jeffrey Neuberger writing on the Mediashift web site,"The U.S. Congress has also addressed the issue of foreign libel actions in several pending bills. H.R. 6146: would protect defendants in foreign defamation actions from the enforcement of foreign judgments inconsistent with U.S. free speech law. S.2977: and H.R. 5814:, the "Free Speech Protection Act of 2008," would both protect defendants from such judgments and allow them to bring an action against the foreign plaintiff for damages. The legislative session will end shortly and the chances of these bills being passed would appear to be slim, but they may well be reintroduced when the new Congress convenes in January. The protection provided by these bills would apply nationally."
Anyone who publishes in the print media or on the Internet has a vested interest in this legal protection. It would be wise to voice one's concern to one's Senator or Representative . American free speech can and has been undermined in courts abroad. This affects us all. In Britain are those who are also concerned about the chill on free speech emanating from Britain's shores. The Weekly Standard reports as follows on a case that involved the oldest publisher today in the English language, Cambridge University Press. In late July, Cambridge University Press announced it was destroying all its remaining copies of Alms for Jihad, a 2006 book exploring the nexus of Islamic charities and Islamic radicalism. At the same time, Cambridge asked libraries around the world to stop carrying the book on their shelves. The reason? Fear of being sued in a British court by Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire who ranks as one of the world's richest men–and whose suspected links to terrorist financing earned him a mention in Alms for Jihad. Cambridge issued a formal apology to bin Mahfouz, and posted a separate public apology on its website. The latter read in part:
In 2006 Cambridge University Press published Alms for Jihad written by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins which made certain defamatory allegations about Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz and his family in connection with the funding of terrorism. Whilst the allegations were originally published in good faith, Cambridge University Press now recognizes that the information upon which they were based was wrong. Cambridge University Press accepts that there is no truth whatsoever in these serious allegations.
Therefore, "To emphasize their regret, Cambridge University Press has agreed to pay Sheikh Khalid substantial damages and to make a contribution to his legal costs, both of which Sheikh Khalid is donating to the charity UNICEF." Neither Burr nor Collins joined the apology. Both American writers and U.S. citizens, they stand by their scholarship. "We refused to be a party to the settlement," says Collins, a professor emeritus. No the other end of the political spectrum, The Guardian, a left wing British newspaper reports approvingly of the American legislation. Many Brits also support the effort, with the notable exception of a handful of lawyers who have made their living off of Britain's existing libel laws such as Belfast based lawyer Paul Tweed, who represents movie stars who sue in British courts. The best solution would be for the House of Commons to pass in the UK a bill that would limit libel tourism at its source.
The British website Hold the Front Page describes the dilemma faced by British publishers and the possible legislative response in that country as follows."Ministers are considering moves to control escalating legal costs which have made fighting libel cases "out of the question" for most regional papers, Media Lawyer reports. At last month's Society of Editors conference in Bristol, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre said that even wealthy papers such as his nowadays thought "long and hard" before contesting libel actions. He told delegates: "For the provincial and local press, such actions are now out of the question. Instead they stump up some cash to settle as quickly as possible to avoid court actions which, if they were to lose, could close them." Now Mr Dacre's concerns have been echoed by MPs in a parliamentary debate on so-called ‘libel tourism' – wealthy foreigners suing for defamation under UK law." It is interesting to note that attacks on free speech have become both global and sophisticated. Courts in democratic nations are finding that their laws are being turned against them. The defenders of press freedom must like their opponents "go global". Reasonable criticism is being suppressed. It is no longer necessary to militarily occupy a country to subjugate its citizens. It can now be done safely through courts of law.
New York's Governor Patterson fired the "shot heard round the world" by signing into law New York's landmark law protecting writers and journalists. Instead of hand wringing and complaining, the legislation he signed into law provides not only substantial protection to New Yorkers but also a prototype for similar legislation in other states and on the federal level. Hopefully Great Britain as well as the European Union member countries will note the insidious erosion of free speech that has already taken place and take measures to arrest and reverse it. Legislatures in Democratic countries always operate in the context of public concern and adjust their priorities accordingly. It is important for citizens to voice their concern about this very pressing issue. The right to know affects every facet of our lives from trivial matters like celebrity gossip to crucial matters such as terror funding and the
Along with the "fairness doctrine"," libel tourism" is a looming threat and in some ways more dangerous. Like the "fairness doctrine" it should be universally
understood and opposed wherever it appears. In our shrinking world, this issue
affects us all.