House passes 'libel tourism' bill

Samantha Fredrickson | Libel | Feature | September 30, 2008

The House of Representatives passed a bill over the weekend that would prohibit U.S. courts from enforcing foreign libel judgments that undercut First Amendment principles.

The "libel tourism" bill, as it’s commonly referred to, grants protection to American authors and journalists who are sued for defamation in countries with weaker protection against libel laws, such as the United Kingdom.

Two libel tourism bills were introduced into the House this term. The bill that passed over the weekend is H.R. 6146, sponsored by Rep. Steven Cohen (D-Tenn). The other bill, H.R. 5814, sponsored by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), went further than Cohen’s bill in not only prohibiting courts from enforcing foreign libel judgments, but also creating a cause of action for U.S. authors to file a counter suit in the United States against the foreign plaintiff.

“[Cohen’s bill] is a benchmark,” James Park, legislative counsel for Cohen, said. “We can add to it over time.”

The legislation was introduced in May but sat largely untouched all summer. With only a short time left before Congress adjourns, Cohen asked for a suspension of the rules to send the bill to the floor immediately, Park said. It passed by a unanimous voice in the House.

Both libel tourism bills were introduced as a result of a lawsuit involving New York author Rachel Ehrenfeld. She was sued in Britain by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi Arabian businessman, for her book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It.”

Ehrenfeld lost the libel suit, and as a result the New York Legislature passed a law preventing state courts from recognizing foreign libel judgments.

"As our world becomes more and more interconnected, we need new laws to ensure that Americans’ First Amendment rights won’t be hindered by more restrictive, foreign mandates," Cohen said in a press statement. "I am proud that we were able to pass this common sense legislation to protect Americans from foreign courts impeding on their rights to free speech and freedom of the press this year, and I hope that the Senate realizes the urgency with which me must enact this law."