Free speech defense bill will combat ‘libel tourism’ in Connecticut

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In the internet age when, at the press of a button, the spoken and written word can be transported around the world virtually instantaneously, our Constitutional freedom of expression is at increased risk from a relatively unrecognized threat – that of “libel tourism.” Fortunately, CT S.B. 69: “An Act Concerning the Enforcement of Foreign Libel Judgments” is the cure, and has been introduced this session.

Libel tourism is the act of shopping for a geographic venue which will allow someone to file, from a country with a lower standard of free speech, a lawsuit that would be viewed in the U.S. as specious. Clearly, this can result in self-censorship among authors and publishers, as their quest to avoid expensive and freedom-chilling lawsuits results in an adaptation of their writings to the lowest common denominator in free speech standards. The logical result of such self-censorship is that readers are then deprived of ideas. Benjamin Franklin may have said it best: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

New York author Rachel Ehrenfeld was sued following the 2003 publication of her book Funding Evil, a treatise about the funding of terrorism, by Saudi Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz, one of many subjects of Ehrenfeld’s book. His disdain for her portrayal of him as a financier of terror led him to sue her from London, then known as “Sue City” for its very plaintiff-friendly litigation climate. London qualified as a site from which to sue the author since, even though the book had been published in the U.S., 23 copies of it had been purchased online in England. Furthermore, ABC News had shown clips of the book on their website.

Mahfouz’s demands of Ehrenfeld included: a payment of $230,000; a donation to a charity of his choosing; an apology for her accusations (though every one of them was impeccably documented); and the destruction of all remaining copies of the book. Although every one of Mahfouz’s other 44 victims of such libel suits (including industry titan Cambridge University Press) rolled over and settled out of court, Ehrenfeld believed strongly that our First Amendment rights should protect Americans, even when sued from another country. Accordingly, she took her case to the New York State Legislature, which passed the Free Speech Defense Act unanimously!

Following the New York victory, Congress passed into law the SPEECH Act. However, since its passage, that legislation has been found to contain a flaw that renders it essentially useless. For that reason, the legislation must be passed state by state.

To date, various versions of the Free Speech Defense Act, a.k.a. “Rachel’s Law,” have been passed in ten states: New York, Tennessee, Utah, Oklahoma, Florida, California, Illinois, South Dakota, Maryland and Louisiana (several of them unanimously in both chambers). Additionally, the bill is supported by numerous very diverse organizations, a few of which are: the ACLU, the Families of the 9/11 Victims, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Authors Guild, and the American Association of University Professors.

Given the importance of our freedom of speech; the immense support behind this bill (both by ten other state legislatures and by dozens of national organizations); and given that it costs nothing to implement, there is no reason why Connecticut should not pass S.B. 69 into law this session. Please contact your state legislators and ask them to please make Connecticut a freer state by supporting this legislation.

Jane Bate lives in Cheshire.

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