Rachel Ehrenfeld is asking Congress to strike a blow for free speech and against terrorism.
Ehrenfeld's book, "Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It," implicated Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz in terrorist financing schemes.
But rather than confront his accuser in U.S. courts, Mahfouz sued in libel-friendly Britain, even though the book was not published there, and won. He and his sons, also party to the suit, won a default judgment when Ehrenfeld decided not to contest the case. She was ordered to pay $225,000 and destroy all copies of the book.
Instead, Ehrenfeld sued Mahfouz in New York, where the book was published, to bar enforcement of the British libel judgment. Her suit was dismissed on the grounds that the federal court had no jurisdiction over Mahfouz, and sent the case to state court, which found the same thing. In response, the New York legislature in May passed "Rachel's Law," which gave New York state courts authority to claim jurisdiction over anyone who wins a foreign libel judgment against a writer or publisher in that state.
Illinois followed suit in August.
Now, Ehrenfeld and her allies want Congress to take the idea national.
The 110th Congress considered similar legislation, but nothing was enacted.
The House passed a version (
The Senate, which had its own bill (
Ehrenfeld prefers the Senate bill, which had a House companion (
"The Senate bill is the bill that has support from all the free speech organizations," Ehrenfeld said Monday. "The Cohen bill has no teeth."
The House bill is weaker than the New York law, which protects the author from having to pay foreign damages but does not give them the right to countersue. That, say proponents of a stronger federal law, is necessary to really put a dent in what has come to be known as libel tourism — a sort of international forum shopping for aggrieved parties.
"We need a federal law to reinforce the supremacy of the First Amendment," said Ehrenfeld, who also is the director of the American Center for Democracy.
Ehrenfeld's allies include the editorial page of the New York Times, the Association of American Publishers (whose president and CEO is Patricia Schroeder, former Democratic representative from Colorado), and even the notoriously anti-Western U.N. Human Rights Council.
Ehrenfeld, an Israeli-American, chuckled at the support from the Human Rights Council, which rarely has a good word to say about Israel or America and is not known for a strong stand against terrorism. But she's happy to have backing from whatever corner for her crusade on behalf of the First Amendment.
New York and Illinois passed their laws easily, and the House passed its bill by voice vote. Little opposition has arisen anywhere in the United States, although the Guardian's Roy Greenslade notes opposition from certain plaintiffs' attorneys, who would stand to lose a judicial free ride if the United States bars enforcement of foreign libel judgments that fail to meet U.S. standards.
Ehrenfeld's hope is that the 111th Congress will move quickly on a new version of the Senate measure from the 110th. Cohen hinted during floor consideration of his bill that action would be forthcoming, while tacitly acknowledging that his measure didn't go as far as it should.
While the focus of organizations such as the Association of American Publishers and the American Library Association is necessarily on the First Amendment, for Ehrenfeld and the lawmakers supporting her cause, the fight is more than an esoteric debate about free speech.
"Libel tourism must be stopped," King, ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote in October. "It threatens not only Americans' First Amendment freedom of speech but also their ability to inform the general public about security and existential threats."
John Bicknell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.