S.P.E.E.C.H. Act to Protect Writers from Overseas Libel

Published: July 29th 2010
in News » World

Rachel Ehrenfeld

Publishers, journalists, and authors will no longer have to be fearful of what they say on account of a foreign libel jurisdiction known as “libel tourism” – at least in the United States.


As of July 13th 2010, a bill was passed by the American government entitled Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage act, S.P.E.E.C.H act for short, to protect media professionals from being sued overseas for libel.


The issue showed a vast increase since 9/11 after authors, including the Israeli founder of the Movement Against Libel Tourism, Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, wrote articles and a bestselling novel regarding the financing of terrorism. Her book, “Funding Evil,” criticized the reported financier of Al Qaeda and Hamas, Asaad Sheikh, who then sued her for libel in England where standards protecting free speech are much more lenient and favourable for the plaintiff of the case.


This trend of suing Americans and other non-citizens of England for libel in English courts has incited much concern regarding the protection of the livelihood of media informants. A writer, like Ehrenfeld, can be sued by someone in a country whose libel laws favour the plaintiff as opposed to the defendant of the case. This allows those suing for libel to damage a writer’s reputation, credibility, publishing opportunities, and overall freedom of speech.


When Ehrenfeld was originally sued for libel by Sheikh in 2005, she refused to defend herself in English court. Since her book was not officially published in England, the prosecution, according to English libel laws, was later deemed null and void.


However, many lawsuits have been filed in order for foreign plaintiffs to take advantage of the weak libel safeguards in England, as well as others like Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore.


These “libel tourists” also called “forum shoppers” seek these nations as opposed to suing domestically since the “American Constitution’s first amendment backed by a series of US Supreme Court decisions, makes it harder to win a libel suit in the United States,” the New York Journal reported.


Even celebrities can be libel tourists. Cameron Diaz, for example, filed a lawsuit against American media in 2005 on British soil for a National Enquirer article that was never officially distributed in England.


In Ehrenfeld’s case, the foreign judgment was not enforced, due to one of the protective features courtesy of the original protective bill she worked to pass (Libel Terrorism Protection Act). This bill was signed and passed with Governor David Paterson’s signature in April 2008. Similar legislature was produced in approximately seven other states within five months following the LTP act, known as “Rachel’s Law.”


It was two years later that the S.P.E.E.C.H act was born. This act aims to prevent any federal or state court in the U.S. from enforcing foreign libel jurisdiction if it does not abide by American First Amendment standards.


The act also allows defendants to seek declaratory judgment that the foreign jurisdiction is “repugnant” to free speech standards, which gives writers the opportunity to clear their name.


Most importantly, the S.P.E.E.C.H act will prevent what Ehrenfeld has called “very bad for national security because the media stopped identifying funders of terrorism by name.”


This secrecy puts many at risk, including American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.


This act, then, will ensure that the public no longer be deprived of crucial information, so long as writers don’t  fear being sued overseas, or being what Ehrenfeld’s Legal Fellow described as  “at the mercy of someone else’s laws.”

Related articles: (first amendment, libel, speech act, law suit, Ehrenfeld)
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