Specter re-introduces 'libel tourism' bill in Senate

Samantha Fredrickson | Libel | Feature | February 17, 2009

The so-called "libel tourism" bill that was introduced in the Senate last year is back on the table. The Free Speech Protection Act of 2009 was re-introduced Tuesday by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).

The bill, S. 449, would prevent U.S. courts from recognizing foreign libel judgments that are deemed repugnant to the First Amendment. It would also allow authors who lose those foreign libel judgments to file a counter-suit against the plaintiff in a U.S. court.

“Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of expression of ideas, opinions, and research, and freedom of exchange of information are all essential to the functioning of a democracy, and the fight against terrorism,” Sen. Specter said in a prepared statement. “There is a real danger that American writers and researchers will be afraid to address the crucial subject of terror funding and other important matters without these protections.”

Specter’s bill is different than the bill that was passed in the House last year. That bill, H.R. 6146, introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), also prevented courts from recognizing foreign judgments that ran up against the First Amendment, but it stopped short of providing a separate cause of action.

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, which Cohen chairs, held a hearing on his libel tourism bill just last week. According to Cohen’s press office, he is expected to re-introduce H.R. 6146, with possible changes, sometime this year.

A third bill, which is identical to Specter’s bill, is also expected to be introduced into the House this year by Rep. Peter King (R-NY).

All three libel tourism bills are in response to a defamation judgment against New York-based author Rachel Ehrenfeld for her 2003 book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop it.” Ehrenfeld was sued in England by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire whom she featured in her book. The British court, applying English law, found for Mahfouz, and issued a judgment against the author.

New York state lawmakers responded by enacting a law that prevented state courts from recognizing foreign libel judgments that are inconsistent with the First Amendment.