Deborah Lipstadt: Says congress needs to protect writers from libel suits filed in foreign countries

Historians in the News

[Michael J. Broyde is a professor of law and Deborah E. Lipstadt a professor of Jewish studies at Emory University. Ms. Lipstadt was sued by David Irving for libel after writing that he was a Holocaust denier. She won after a long fight in British courts.]

THANKS to the Internet, universal access to the printed word and economic globalization, the 21st century is expected to be shaped by the free exchange of ideas. But casting a shadow over this optimistic prediction is the emerging threat of “libel tourism.”

In 2004, Khalid bin Mahfouz, a billionaire Saudi businessman, took action against Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American author whose book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It,” published in 2003, argues that Mr. bin Mahfouz has financed Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. Mr. bin Mahfouz sued Ms. Ehrenfeld for libel in Britain, where libel laws impose an onerous burden on authors to prove the truth of their statements, and in 2005 won a default judgment ordering her to apologize, destroy all copies of the book and pay the sheik roughly $230,000 in damages.

The book had never been published or sold in Britain, but about 20 people had ordered it online and had it shipped there. British courts asserted jurisdiction, and Ms. Ehrenfeld found herself subject to the laws of another country....

To protect authors in the future, Congress should pass legislation preventing any American court — state or federal — from enforcing libel judgments issued by foreign courts, so that anyone wishing to sue an American for libel must do so in the United States. This would be an exception to our usual practice with regard to British court judgments, which are usually enforced here. But because the differences in American and British libel laws are drastic, special protections are needed to uphold our tradition of free speech.

Related Links

  • Robert O. Collins: The Saudi Billionaire vs. Cambridge University Press
  • Read entire article at Deborah Lipstadt & Michael J. Broyde in an op ed in the NYT

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