A victory for free speech
One of the most powerful weapons Islamists have is the threat to use the courts to silence people who get in their way. That’s why it was so heartening to learn that on April 30, New York Gov. David Patterson signed into law the Libel Terrorism Protection Act, which is critically important in protecting the First Amendment rights of persons who report factually about terrorism. The legislation is commonly referred to as “Rachel’s Law,” named after Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy. Miss Ehrenfeld, a scholar who has dedicated her professional life to the study of terrorism, ran afoul of Saudi billionaire Khalid Salim bin Mahfouz. Miss Ehrenfeld (who has been published numerous times in this newspaper) wrote in her book “Funding Evil” that Mr. bin Mahfouz was involved in financing Hamas and al Qaeda; Mr. bin Mahfouz denied that he had knowingly donated to either group.
Instead of suing Miss Ehrenfeld in the United States, where she lives and publishes her work, Mr. bin Mahfouz sued in Britain. Neither Mr. bin Mahfouz nor Miss Ehrenfeld live there, but it is much easier to prove libel there than in the United States because British law places the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff. That’s why people known as “libel tourists” look for the smallest connection to Britain in order to obtain a pretext to file suit there. In this case, Mr. bin Mahfouz cited the fact that a small number of copies of her work had been purchased in Britain using Amazon.com, and the fact that a chapter of the book appeared on the Internet where it may have been seen by British readers. In May 2005, a British judge ruled that Miss Ehrenfeld must apologize to Mr. bin Mahfouz, pay more than $225,000 and destroy copies of her book. It would be difficult to imagine a ruling more detrimental to the First Amendment.
But Miss Ehrenfeld is nothing if not a fighter, so she sought relief from the ruling in state and federal courts in the United States — with mixed results. In one case, New York state’s highest court ruled that it could not protect Miss Ehrenfeld from Mr. bin Mahfouz’s British lawsuit judgement. But Miss Ehrenfeld won a victory in the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on June 8, 2007, when the court ruled that her case against Mr. Mahfouz’s libel verdict was valid and that she could appeal to relief from American courts in order to stop the British court verdict from being enforced here. Lost in the libel debate was the revelation last summer (reported on this newspaper’s Op-Ed page last year by Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer), that a September 13, 2001, note from France’s foreign intelligence agency said that in 1996 Mr. bin Mahfouz was one of the architects of a banking scheme constructed for the benefit of Osama bin Laden — a point that makes the British libel verdict against Miss Ehrenfeld appear even more ridiculous.
Rachel’s Law would declare overseas defamation judgements unenforceable in New York courts unless the foreign defamation laws provide the same guarantees provided pursuant to the U.S. Constitution. “New Yorkers must be able to speak out on issues of public concern without living in fear that they will be sued outside the United States, under legal standards inconsistent with our First Amendment rights,” Mr. Patterson said in signing the legislation into law. Last week, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, along with Rep. Peter King, New York Republican, introduced legislation that would in essence extend “Rachel’s Law” protections to residents of all 50 states. That’s something Congress should begin carefully considering right away.