Obama signs federal 'libel tourism' bill

Cristina Abello | Libel | Feature | August 10, 2010

President Barack Obama today signed into law bipartisan legislation aimed at protecting authors and journalists from libel lawsuits filed abroad.

Just a few weeks after the Senate Judiciary Committee finalized the legislation and it was approved by the full Senate, Obama signed the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act. The SPEECH Act, which was sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., prohibits U.S. courts from enforcing foreign libel judgments against U.S. defendants that are inconsistent with First Amendment protections. The practice of filing lawsuits in a foreign country because it has more lax standards on libel is known as "libel tourism."

The law, which is the first to offer nationwide federal protection, was modeled on a New York state law inspired by an author who faced a libel tourism lawsuit over a book on terrorism financing. In addition to blocking enforcement, the new federal law will allow defendants to clear their names by obtaining a declaratory judgment in a United States court.

The current legislation was supported by many First Amendment and free press groups, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Association of Publishers, and national and state library associations.