How important is our First Amendment to you? If you're an author, journalist, publisher or vendor of the written word, most especially if you deal with subjects such as terrorism, you no doubt place a great deal of importance on free speech protection. Connecticut now has an opportunity to make our state freer in this regard than it has been, and we have Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld to thank.
The subject of Ehrenfeld's book, "Funding Evil," published in 2003 by Bonus Books in Los Angeles, was Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz's role in the financing of Islamic terrorism. Even though the book was published in America, 23 copies had been purchased online in the UK, a country whose free speech laws, at least in 2003, were very favorable to plaintiffs. The result was that Mahfouz filed suit in England for libel over the unflattering portrayal in Ehrenfeld's book of his financial transactions.
The author, a resident of the U.S., chose not to defend the action in England, and suffered a judgment by the British court of a fine of approximately $230,000 in damages paid to Mahfouz, whose net worth was estimated to be in excess of $3 billion. Additionally, Ehrenfeld was ordered by the court to apologize for "false" accusations against Mahfouz and to destroy all existing copies of the book. This scenario is often referred to as "libel tourism," and is a form of litigation jihad.
Dr. Ehrenfeld's response to this frivolous lawsuit was to pursue changing the law in New York such that, in cases in which suits filed against American citizens are filed in countries with a lesser standard of free speech than we enjoy in the U.S., our U.S. standards of free speech will trump those of the other country. Her legislative venture was successful, with the result that New York-based writers had only to concern themselves with their own country's standards of expression. Since then, the Free Speech Defense Act (also known as "Rachel's Law") has also been passed in California, Illinois, Maryland, Florida, Utah, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Dakota and Oklahoma; in several of these cases, it was passed unanimously by both chambers.
"Rachel's Law" not only protects journalists and the like from necessarily engaging in self-censorship, but it also helps to protect the rest of society from the greatly diluted version of truth that derives from such self-censorship. Equally important is that, with the passage of the Free Speech Defense Act into law, we will have taken a bite out of those American dollars paid to terrorists as a result of defamation suits.
A similar bill, known as the SPEECH Act, was passed by the United States Congress in 2010. Unfortunately, it lacks the teeth necessary for the defendant to adequately defend his case, hence the need for more effective legislation at the state level.
In order to actualize these benefits for Connecticut citizens, we must pass the Free Speech Defense Act into law. Over the next few weeks, please talk with friends and family members and contact your state lawmakers to let them know that Connecticut needs this law.
And what became of Khalid bin Mahfouz? He died in 2009 at the age of 60, having filed 45 lawsuits against authors, journalists and publishers, all but one of whom settled prior to trial. Let's take a strong stand in favor of free speech by adding Connecticut to the list of states that refuse to allow their citizens to be victims of libel tourism.