Home > Libel > The Yanks lead the charge

The Yanks lead the charge

President Obama has signed into US law the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act – aka the Speech Act – effectively protecting American journalists, authors and academics from libel tourism.

This is the detestable practice of overseas libel claimants using overseas legislation to sue overseas authors. And the No 1 libel tourism hotspot is, of course, the UK.

The spur to the Yanks’ action was the egregious case of American academic Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued in London by an Saudi billionaire businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz over her book Funding Evil, even though the book was neither published nor marketed here.

But because it sold a whopping 23 copies in the UK – mostly over the internet –Mahfouz was allowed to sue her in the High Court here under the UK’s Carling  libel laws (probably the strictest in the world).

Rachel Ehrenfeld

Rachel Ehrenfeld: Mugged by a libel tourist

Ehrenfeld, a director of the American Center for Democracy, stoutly refused to acknowledge the trial, as any red-blooded American citizen who’s rather fond of the First Amendment should, but was ordered to pay £10,000 damages plus costs anyway.

Ehrenfeld fought back, countersuing Mahfouz in the New York to prevent the English court’s ruling being enforced. However, when the case was dismissed (because the NY court decided it had no jurisdiction over Mahfouz, a foreign national), the NY State Legislature quickly passed a law giving the Big Apple’s courts such jurisdiction over foreign libel plaintiffs who sued New York authors and publishers. Several US states passed similar legislation. The Speech Act now makes it national.

Well, the US has done the necessary to protect its citizens: now it’s surely time for the UK to clean up its act. The coalition has made the right noises about reforming the UK’s vicious and rapacious libel laws, which even such welcome developments as Reynolds Defence have hardly blunted. But more than just noises are needed.

Curiously, the UK’s libel tourist-friendly laws have fans, not all of them members of Carter-Ruck. One of them is former law lord, Lord Hoffmann, who in a speech to the Inner Temple in February this year, defended the practice, attacked the proposed Speech legislation and thought it relevant to the issue to mention Dr Ehrenfeld was born in Israel, that she had “firm views on the Palestine question” and  thought “the British to be soft on terrorism”. Read the whole rank, ghastly thing here.

Khalid bin Mahfouz died of a heart attack in August last year. Leonard Hubert “Lenny” Hoffmann, Baron Hoffmann, is, sad to relate, still with us. Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke needs to put Hoffmann and those grasping legal chums who agree with him in their place, slam shut the libel tourism loopholes and put freedom of speech on the same protected footing it enjoys in the US.

Of course, politicians have in the past been loathe to clean up England and Wales’s libel laws, primarily because they’ve been such grateful beneficiaries of them.

However, with almost all politicians jumping on the blog bandwagon at the moment, it’s surely only a matter of time before the inevitable threats of legal action start rolling in. That will probably focus their minds on the problem wonderfully.

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