House Hears Testimony On International Free Speech Issue

February 12, 2009 12:00 am

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ACLU Welcomes Hearing On Libel Tourism

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WASHINGTON – The ACLU called on Congress today to take steps to prevent foreign countries from restricting the free speech rights of Americans inside the U.S. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law heard testimony from a panel of experts on a phenomenon called “libel tourism.”

Libel tourism occurs when a foreign plaintiff sues an American author or publisher in a country where free speech protections do not match those afforded under the First Amendment. A party seeking libel damages may bring a claim in any jurisdiction where the allegedly libelous communication was published and then enforce the judgment inside the U.S. With the ease of electronic communications, publications by American authors are now routinely seen outside the U.S. A bill introduced by the subcommittee’s chairman, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN), was passed during the last session but was not voted on by the Senate. Related bills were offered in the 110th Congress by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Congressman Peter King (R-NY), but did not advance.

“Americans should not lose their free speech rights simply because it’s now easier for foreign audiences to access materials published in the U.S.,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, ACLU Chief Legislative and Policy Counsel. “Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of American democracy and while that right may stop at our shores, the restrictions that exist in foreign lands should not be allowed to chill the speech rights of Americans at home.”

The United Kingdom presents a stark example since its laws require an author confronted by a libel claim to prove the truth of published matters, whereas in the U.S., the subject of the publication must prove its falsity. The most egregious British libel tourism cases involve publications with only incidental circulation in the U.K., plaintiffs and defendants with only minimal connection there, and plaintiffs with little or no connection to the United States. Author Rachel Ehrenfeld, a witness at today’s hearing, was sued in the U.K. by a Saudi businessman who claimed the book she wrote about terrorism financing defamed him. She now faces enforcement of a British judgment inside the U.S. despite the fact that his claim would have been marginal, if not frivolous, under U.S. law.

“Our free speech rights should not be so easily eroded,” said Macleod-Ball. “If nothing else, the international standards of free speech should be the benchmark in these circumstances. Those standards are both fair and effective and will withstand the claims of opportunistic plaintiffs.”

To read the ACLU’s statement for the record on libel tourism, go to:

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