Senate bill would block some foreign libel suits

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

WASHINGTON — American authors, journalists and publishers would be protected from some foreign libel suits under legislation approved unanimously yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill would prevent a U.S. federal court from recognizing or enforcing a foreign judgment for defamation that is inconsistent with the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee.

Another provision would allow the defendants to obtain a U.S. court order declaring a foreign judgment would not be enforceable under American law.

The legislation “ensures that American journalists, authors and publishers are protected from foreign libel lawsuits that chill their First Amendment rights,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman.

“The First Amendment is a cornerstone of American democracy,” Leahy said. “Freedom of speech and the press enable vigorous debate over issues of national importance, and enable an exchange of ideas that shapes our political process.”

The legislation was introduced after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a New York state court ruled that author Rachel Ehrenfeld could not stop a Saudi billionaire from trying to enforce a British libel verdict against her in the United States. Ehrenfeld wrote a book, Funding Evil, about terrorist financing and billionaire Khalid Salim A. Bin Mahfouz.

Sens. Leahy and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., introduced the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act (SPEECH Act) in June as S. 3518. The House passed its version of the bill (H.R. 2765) last year. The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday passed the SPEECH Act as a substitute to the House measure.

The Judiciary Committee's approval opens the door to full Senate consideration.

The SPEECH Act would invalidate libel judgments levied against Americans elsewhere that could not have been obtained in the United States due to First Amendment protections. It does not go as far as other libel-tourism bills under consideration in Congress that would allow libel defendants to counter-sue the plaintiffs who bring such claims against them in foreign courts, which makes the bill less controversial and possibly more appealing to members of Congress.

First Amendment Center Library Manager Gordon Belt contributed to this report.

Tags: , , ,