No longer will foreign interests be able to chill the speech of investigative reporters and writers in the United States by obtaining massive judgments against them under other nations' skewed libel laws, an author who once was targeted by such a move by a Saudi official today told WND.
"The biggest threat … was just the factor of intimidation. The chilling effect was enough. That actually stopped reporting and writing," Rachel Ehrenfeld of the American Center for Democracy said after the president signed the SPEECH Act into law today.
The law, the "Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitution Heritage Act," itself explains the reasons it was needed.
"Some persons are obstructing the free expression of rights of United States authors and publishers, and in turn chilling the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States interest of the citizenry in receiving information on matters of importance, by seeking out foreign jurisdictions that do not provide the full extent of free-speech protections to authors and publishers that are available in the United States, and suing a United States author or publisher in that foreign jurisdiction," Congress found.
The foreign claims and judgments then "not only suppress the free-speech rights of the defendants to the suit, but inhibit other written speech that might otherwise have been written or published but for the fear of a foreign lawsuit."
The new law states, "A domestic court shall not recognize or enforce a foreign judgment for defamation unless the domestic court determines that the exercise of personal jurisdiction by the foreign court comported with the due-process requirements that are imposed on domestic courts by the Constitution."
It also requires those seeking to enforce a foreign judgment to prove that American "due process" was followed even in the foreign court.
It also allows those targeted by such claims to seek a judgment declaring that such foreign conclusions "would not be enforceable."
The publisher defaulted on a libel suit filed against it in the U.K. by a Saudi billionaire, issued an apology, agreed to pay court fees and damages and to destroy all unsold copies of a 2006 book by two American authors, "Alms for Jihad." Libraries also were to remove the book from their shelves.
Authors J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins contended there was no defamation in the book, as alleged by Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz.
The case was not the first time Mahfouz used British courts to silence critics whose works alleged links to terror funding. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, reported Mahfouz has used the process multiple times against different authors.
As WND reported, Mahfouz purchased from the U.K. several copies of Ehrenfeld's book, "Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It."
Ehrenfeld alleged the billionaire – formerly president of the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia and estimated to be worth over $3 billion – has helped finance terrorism.
She told WND today that the loss of the investigative reporting and documentation that was chilled over the years by the idea that a foreign judgment could target an American author or publisher is incalculable.
"We don't really know how much damage has been caused," she said. "With this law, this protects everybody who writes from America or publishes from here."
In an announcement about the new law's signing, she said, "This new law 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."
Writers now will be able to "expose the enemies of freedom and democracy without fear of foreign intimidation."
Published reports document how others, too, have used such laws. According to a Variety report, celebrities Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears have sued publications in the U.K. to take advantage of the libel-plaintiff-friendly laws there.
After Ehrenfeld's case developed, but before Congress acted, the state of New York adopted a plan to prevent the application of foreign judgments in such cases.
Ehrenfeld has explained that only 23 copies of her book were sold in the U.K., but Mahfouz took advantage of the country's liberal laws and filed the suit there, charging damage to his reputation.
The British court issued a $225,000 judgment against Ehrenfeld after she refused to appear, on advice of her counsel in Britain. The author then sought a judgment in New York declaring the British decision unenforceable in the U.S., because her work is protected under American law.