Britain’s libel and defamation laws are stricter than they are in the United States, which is one reason that celebrities increasingly have sought to sue American publications in London or elsewhere. There’s a greater chance they’ll win.
But the House today passed what’s called the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act, or SPEECH Act, which will prohibit plaintiffs from collecting in U.S. courts those foreign judgments that don’t conform to the First Amendment. The bill, which passed the Senate last week and now heads to President Obama for his signature, addresses what is commonly called “libel tourism.”
Its sponsor, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), said in a statement that “libel tourism threatens to undermine free speech in the U.S. because, with the rise of the Internet and foreign courts’ liberal exercise of personal jurisdiction over Americans, foreign defamation law that lacks the constitutionally mandated speech-protective features of U.S. law can be applied to publications that are substantially or entirely distributed in the U.S.”
Author Rachel Ehrenfeld has been the instigator of the federal anti-libel tourism law as well as a state law in New York. Her 2003 book “Funding Evil” documented how Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz funded al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations. He sued for libel in London and won a hefty default judgment.
“With this legislation Congress has taken action against libel tourism — a dire threat to our freedom and democracy,” she said after the bill passed.
Among those who have sought judgments in overseas courts recently are Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, who sued the National Enquirer in London; Roman Polanski, who sued Vanity Fair in London; and Britney Spears, who sued the Enquirer in Belfast. One of the first Hollywood “libel tourists” was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sued author Wendy Leigh in a British court in 1990 over her unauthorized biography that claimed he held anti-Semitic views. But as California’s governor, Schwarzenegger signed a state anti-libel tourism law last year.