New York strikes back against libel tourism

Matthew Pollack | Libel | Reaction | April 1, 2008

New York's legislature on Monday unanimously passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act, sending the measure – intended to protect American journalists from lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions that do not provide the same free speech protections as the First Amendment – to the desk of Gov. David Patterson.

The bill was first proposed in response to a ruling from New York’s highest court that the state could not exercise jurisdiction over Khalid Salim a Bin Mahfouz, a Saudi Arabian businessman and banker who obtained a default judgment in a defamation suit against American author Rachel Ehrenfeld in a British court. Bin Mahfouz has made a recent habit of exploiting the plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the United Kingdom; since 2002, Bin Mahfouz has sued or threatened to sue for libel at least 36 times in British courts.

The act overrides that court decision and begins the push-back against Bin Mahfouz' underhanded tactics by opening up an avenue to American court systems and offering freedom from the specter of foreign judgments that would run afoul of the First Amendment.  The law will declare any foreign defamation judgment unenforceable on U.S. soil. unless a foreign defamation law provides, in substance and application, the same free speech protections guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

In passing the bill, New York has blazed a trail for other states and the federal government to follow.  Potential foreign verdicts will continue to stifle free discourse throughout the country until all Americans -- not just New York residents -- have an arrow in their quiver to pierce the threat of potentially debilitating foreign judgments.