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The US Speech Act puts pressure on UK libel tourism laws

The US Speech Act puts pressure on UK libel tourism laws

Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress may not agree on much, but in a rare event there was bipartisan support on a libel tourism bill, also know as The SPEECH Act (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage). If signed into law, the U.S. will no longer uphold judgments of defamation abroad that conflict with the First Amendment, which upholds freedom of speech. This more liberal version of the libel tourism law calls into question the UK's more rigid stance on the issue.

There are several recorded cases of libel tourism being used against American journalists in the past, most of the cases being heard in UK courts. A Greek citizen was cited as suing the New York Times and International Herald, claiming they falsified information about him. The recent case that initiated the new legislation was the that of a US citizen, Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued in a London court. Apparently she claimed in her book Funding Evil that that a Saudi billionaire, Khalid bin Mahmouz, was supporting terrorism activities. Although less than 25 books were purchased through Amazon in the UK, the court decided in favor of Mahmouz and awarded him $225,000 in damages. Mahmouz did not attempt to collect his damages as all of Ehrenfeld's assets were in the US, but never the less the situation riled Ehrenfeld up enough to pursue legislative actions.

The Speech Bill aims to protect American journalists, publishers, and authors. The bill has been passed by Congress and is set to be signed into a law by President Obama within the next month. Tennessee Congressmen Steven Cohen stated that it was critical that Americans' "rights are never undermined by foreign judgements."

The new US law has forced the UK's hand in changing its own libel tourism laws. While the UK has been planning on changing its regulations, the country's standards have remained much stricter than its US ally. In the US, the burden of proof is on the claimant, which possibly curbs erroneous claims from seeing daylight in court. Conversely the UK puts the burden on the publisher, which enforces a restriction in freedom of speech. The English PEN has demanded reform, stating that "The effect of libel tourism is not just the books pulped, but it also has a chilling effect on the work of charities, writers and activists across the globe."

The UK has felt the pressure from the US and from its activists at home, and stated its plans to draft a revised libel tourism bill for March 2011. UK representatives for the Index on Censorship adequately stated that "The fact that Britain's best ally feels the need to protect itself from the English libel courts demonstrates the need for reform."

It is interesting that the change in US libel tourism laws are happening concurrently with the WikiLeaks scandal. WikiLeaks recently worked with Iceland in essentially banning libel tourism, which protects investigative journalism and makes it difficult to prevent stories from being published. Will other countries follow this lead towards more tolerant libel laws?

Sources: Bloomberg Businessweek, Journalism.co.uk, Press Gazette, Telegraph



Stefanie Chernow


2010-07-29 14:43

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