American Center for Democracy

U.S. Congress Passes Historic SPEECH Act to Protect Americans First Amendment Rights from Foreign Courts

President Obama Poised to Sign the SPEECH Act into Law

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, Founder of the Movement Against Libel Tourism, Applauds House Leadership and Rep. Steve Cohen for Passing Bipartisan HR 2765 (as amended by the Leahy-Sessions SPEECH Act) New York, NY- July 27, 2010:

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, Director of American Center for Democracy, and founder of the movement against libel tourism, praised the United States House of Representatives for passing HR 2765 (as amended by the Leahy-Sessions SPEECH Act) today. The bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate by the Chairmen of the Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Ranking Member Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama).

“As the initiator of anti-libel tourism legislation, I welcome the passage of this important bill in the House. I congratulate Rep. Cohen, as his early efforts are leading to a new law of the land. With this legislation Congress has taken action against libel tourism – a dire threat to our freedom and democracy,” said Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld.

“I’d also like to thank and congratulate the Congressmen who made the SPEECH Act possible, including Representative King (R-NY) and Senators Leahy (D-VT), Sessions (R-AL), Specter (D-PA), Lieberman (D-CT), Schumer (D-NY) and Wyden (D-MN), and their dedicated staffs. They have taken a great step forward in securing the freedom of expression which our constitution guarantees.”

“Libel tourism threatens to undermine the principles of free speech because foreign courts often don’t place as difficult a burden on plaintiffs in libel cases,” said Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN). “I believe our First Amendment rights to be among the most sacred principles laid out in the Constitution. It is vital we ensure that these rights are never undermined by foreign judgments. I appreciate Rachel Ehrenfeld for helping bring attention to this important issue.”

The SPEECH Act 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. Such lawsuits are often used by “libel-tourists” in an effort to suppress the rights of American scholars, writers, and journalists to speak, write and publish freely in print and on the Internet.

The Act grants “a cause of action for declaratory judgment relief against a party who has brought a successful foreign defamation action whose judgment undermines the First Amendment,” and provides for legal fees. These measures will help diminish the severe chilling effect such suits have already had on journalists, researchers, the general media, particularly on matters of national security and public safety.

Based on New York State’s “Libel Terrorism Protection Act” (also known as “Rachel’s Law”), the SPEECH Act marks the culmination of a national campaign spearheaded by Dr. Ehrenfeld following her own experiences with libel tourism.

In Funding Evil, published in the U.S. in 2003, Dr. Ehrenfeld documented how Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz funded al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Mahfouz sued Dr. Ehrenfeld for libel in London, attempting to use the plaintiff-friendly British libel laws to intimidate her into silence. Mahfouz had previously used this tactic to bully more than 40 authors and a publisher into apologies for and retractions of similar revelations.

Dr. Ehrenfeld refused to acknowledge the British court’s jurisdiction over her as she did not live in England, nor was her book published or marketed there. The English court ruled against her by default, ordering her to pay a hefty fine, apologize, retract her statements and pay Mahfouz’s substantial legal fees.

Represented by her attorney, Daniel Kornstein of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, Dr. Ehrenfeld countersued Mahfouz in New York to prevent the enforcement of the default judgment on the grounds that it did not meet the standard of American First Amendment protections for free speech.

When the court dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction over Mahfouz, the New York State Legislature acted quickly, and passed “Rachel’s Law,” in April 2008, enabling the New York courts to take jurisdiction over foreign libel plaintiffs who sue New York authors and publishers abroad.

Since then, seven states have passed similar protective legislation protecting their residents.

The editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald, as well as organizations such as the Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Independent Book Publishers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and 9/11 Families for a Secure America, among others, have supported Dr. Ehrenfeld’s fight for free speech.

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