Sitting at my desk on 23 January 2004, I was interrupted by an email from a law firm in London. It was a letter threatening to sue me for libel in a British court, for statements made in my book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It, about their client, Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz.
The letter claimed Mahfouz denied allegations in my book that he "knowingly" funded al-Qaida and other Muslim terrorist organisations.
Mahfouz's lawyers demanded my public apology, retraction, removing my book from circulation, legal fees and a donation to a charity of Mahfouz's choice. This was followed by further correspondence and then legal papers were served.
As an American citizen, I refused to recognise the British court's jurisdiction over me. I did not believe that I had to defend myself in a country where I do not live, and where my book was not published or marketed. Besides the cost would have been prohibitive.
What happened to me did not occur in a dark backwater of totalitarian repression like Saudi Arabia or North Korea, but in the UK. The British court accepted jurisdiction because 23 copies of Funding Evil were purchased in Britain via the internet, and a chapter of the book was posted on the internet. In 2005, Justice Eady granted Mahfouz a judgment by default, awarding him hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, and other sanctions.
I countersued in New York, but lost only because the New York State law as it was then did not permit jurisdiction over Mahfouz. However, the court noted that if state legislature changed the law, I could reopen the case.
Last May, the New York State legislature passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act. Until then, I spent many sleepless nights worried Mahfouz would try to enforce the English judgment against me in New York. His deliberate non-enforcement left it hanging over my head like a sword of Damocles.
Further aggravating the chilling effects is Mahfouz's dedicated website advertising my judgment, with more than 40 others he sued in London. The actions he took against me and others chilled American publishers from publishing books containing information on terror financiers.
The Free Speech Protection Act, now pending before Congress, includes provisions to counter sue and damages. These are essential to remove the chilling effects of foreign libel suits, serving as a deterrent to people contemplating to sue American writers and publishers in Britain or other foreign jurisdictions. I do not think Mahfouz would have sued me had he known I could counter sue him and ask for damages.
A free press is vital to our democracy. American scholars, like me, seek Congress's help to stop libel tourism from limiting our ability to write freely about important matters of public policy vital to our national security. New York and Illinois have enacted laws to protect their citizens from the scourge of libel tourism. A similar law is pending in California.
Congress should pass the Free Speech Protection Act to guarantee the "uninhibited, robust and wide-open" debate the first amendment was designed to protect.