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Obama acts to defend US from UK libel laws

By Index on Censorship / 11 August, 2010

Obama Libel
President Barack Obama has signed the SPEECH Act into US law, a move designed to protect US writers and reporters from England’s controversial defamation laws.

The Act, tabled by Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen, makes libel judgments against American writers in foreign territories unenforceable if they are perceived to counter the First Amendment right to free speech. The Libel Reform Campaign has expressed concern that our reputation is being damaged internationally due to our restrictive, archaic and costly libel laws which cost 140 times the European equivalent.

The SPEECH Act is inspired by the Libel Terrorism Protection Act passed by the New York State Assembly in February 2008, after American academic Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld was sued by a wealthy Arab businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz in the High Court in London. Only 23 copies of Ehrenfeld’s book Funding Evil were sold in Britain whereas the vast majority of copies were distributed in the US. Mahfouz had little prospect of successfully suing Ehrenfeld in the US Courts as a result of First Amendment protection, so sued in the High Court in London, where free speech is less protected.

The Bill was passed by voice vote in the US Congress on 27 July 2010, at the time Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen said:

“Libel tourism is the name given to the practice of doing an end run around the first amendment by suing American authors and publishers for defamation in the courts of certain foreign countries with defamation laws that don’t accord the same respect to free speech values as we do. Britain is a nation that particularly is assiduous for these actions… The United Kingdom has become the favoured destination for libel tourists.”

The coalition government has said it will table a draft Bill to reform our libel laws in January 2011 after the campaign led by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. The campaign has 52,000 signatories to its petition and all three main political parties committed in their general election manifestos to libel reform.

Jo Glanville, Editor of Index on Censorship said:

“The US’s response to our libel laws has already played a key role in advancing the campaign for reform in the UK. I’m hopeful that the government’s draft bill will address the issue of libel tourism, which has a clear chilling effect on freedom of speech, and make it harder for claimants from outside the EU to bully publishers, NGOs, bloggers and investigative journalists into silence.”

Síle Lane, Public Liaison of Sense About Science said:

“As other countries move to protect their citizens from the chilling effect of our libel laws we urge bloggers, science writers, NGOs and small publications facing threats and bankruptcy to keep up the pressure on the Government to ensure that the proposed draft libel bill brings the meaningful change that is so urgently needed.”

Jonathan Heawood, the Director of English PEN said:

“It’s hugely embarrassing that other countries are passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in our High Court. English libel lawyers claim that libel tourism is not a problem, if this is the case why has President Obama just signed into law a measure to protect his citizens from our Courts?”

Mark Stephens, a leading media lawyer and Index on Censorship trustee said:

“This marks a new low in Anglo-American jurisprudence and is the first time since Boston Tea Party that English judgments will not be enforced in America. All other non-defamation judgments will continue to be enforced thus marking out English libel laws as aberrant.”

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