Culminating a years-long lobbying campaign organized by the Association of American Publishers, President Obama this week signed the Speech Act, a law that prohibits federal courts from recognizing or enforcing foreign libel judgments in the U.S. that do not pass First Amendment muster. The law seeks to put an end to a practice known as “libel tourism,” which allows U.S. authors to be sued in foreign courts with more “plaintiff-friendly foreign libel laws,” such as the U.K. The result of libel tourism is to effectively suppress speech protected by the First Amendment.
Libel tourism came to international prominence in 2005, when Saudi billionaire Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz sued New York-based author Rachel Ehrenfeld in a British Court over her book Funding Evil. Even though the book was not published in the U.K., 23 copies purchased via the Internet provided Mahfouz with enough grounds to sue Ehrenfeld in England, where libel judgments are easier to obtain. Ehrenfeld refused to participate in the proceedings, was ordered to pay £10,000 and legal costs. In response, New York and five other states passed their own libel tourism laws.
In 2007, Mahfouz forced Cambridge University Press (CUP) to rescind publication of J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins’s Alms for Jihad, in the face of another controversial libel suit in a British Court. In a move that garnered significant media coverage worldwide, CUP was forced to pulp copies of the book, put the book out of print, ask libraries to pull the book from the shelves, pay damages, and in an extraordinary move, issue a public apology on its web site.