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EDITORIAL: Standing up for free speech

New law defends U.S. journalists from foreign libel lawsuits

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2010

Earlier this summer, Congress unanimously passed a bill that protects investigative journalists from harassing lawsuits filed in foreign courts. Rather than trumpet this bipartisan achievement, President Obama has remained curiously silent.

The Securing the Protection of Our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act, known as the SPEECH Act, traced its origins to the 2003 publication of Rachel Ehrenfeld's "Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It." Ms. Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center for Democracy, was targeted by Saudi billionaire banker Khalid bin Mahfouz, whom she had implicated in assisting terrorist financing. He sued her in a British court in 2005 for besmirching his reputation. Ms. Ehrenfeld told The Washington Times that "he didn't have much reputation to protect anyway," having previously been indicted for fraud related to his stake in the scandal-plagued Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

Because her book was not marketed internationally, Ms. Ehrenfeld refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the British court, which awarded a default judgment against her. Ms. Ehrenfeld was a victim of "libel tourism," in which shopping for international legal venues to squelch unflattering stories was a growing threat to such investigative efforts. According to Ms. Ehrenfeld, it became "a weapon used to silence the media," especially when reporting about support for terrorist networks coming from wealthy Middle Eastern sources. Mr. Mahfouz eventually sued 45 publishers and journalists over their stories about his terrorism ties, all of whom caved.

But Ms. Ehrenfeld fought back, and politicians took up her cause. New York state passed a law in 2008 that provided protection against the enforcement of international libel judgments, and the SPEECH Act followed. The bill was co-sponsored by a diverse group of members, ranging from ultraliberal Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee to solidly conservative California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. Upper-chamber support ranged from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, to Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. The law states that American courts "shall not recognize or enforce a foreign judgment for defamation" unless the foreign country in question adheres to protections at least equal to those in the United States (which Britain does not), or unless a similar case, if brought in the United States, would have reached the same conclusion. It effectively frees Americans from the threat of punitive suits brought abroad by wealthy foreigners seeking to conceal their ties to terrorism and other international criminal activities.

Given Mr. Obama's rhetoric in praise of bipartisanship, one would expect the White House to hold up the SPEECH Act as a shining example of both political parties uniting to defend a cherished constitutional freedom. On Aug. 10, however, Mr. Obama signed the bill into law without ceremony or statement. The White House press office simply noted the signing, saying the law "amends Title 28, United States Code, to prohibit recognition and enforcement of certain foreign judgments." The SPEECH Act is a dramatic blow against Islamist "lawfare" against American journalists and investigators that deserves a bit more attention.

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