Politics

The Libel Tourist: Silencing Free Speech

Litigious Saudi Arabians – making use of plaintiff-friendly British libel laws –  have imposed major restrictions on free speech in Britain. British law is just the opposite of American law.  In America, someone suing for libel has to show that the statement – or article or book – is false.  In Britain, it’s just the other way around. The defendant has to prove that what he said or wrote is true. 

Under these bizarre principles, authors have been punished for writing about the sources of terrorist financing and in at least one case – the book “Alms for Jihad” – a book has been withdrawn from sale to the public.  Now the Saudis are trying to squash First Amendment freedom in the US by suing American authors in British courts.  It’s called “libel tourism.”  

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld didn’t know she’d be wrestling with a massive lawsuit when she wrote "Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It" in 2003. Ehrenfeld wrote the book in the US and published it here.  Like almost every other book for sale here, her book was for sale over the internet in Britain.  And thus she was sued.  Her battle is portrayed in “The Libel Tourist”, a short documentary film produced by the The Moving Picture Institute, that reveals the frightening impact of libel tourism in a chilling 8-minutes.

As the age of terror progresses, information on terrorist financing by Saudis can be discovered by diligent research.  (Why our government apparently does so little about it is another matter entirely)  But by doing the research and writing about their findings,  Ehrenfeld and others have exposed the Saudis’ actions.  And thus became victims of libel tourism.

According to Ehrenfeld’s book, Saudi Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz is one of several Saudi billionaires who has made massive contributions to terrorists. Mahfouz sued Ehrenfeld for accusing him and his two sons of of terror financing in her book. According to the American Center for Democracy, she claimed they specifically funded al-Qaeda via the family’s ownership of the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia and through Islamic charities.

Mahfouz, who has successfully sued several authors under in the British Courts, denied knowingly funding terrorism. However, as Ehrenfeld points out in the documentary, she never wrote that he specifically knew of the connection between his money and terrorists.

Mahfouz knew filing suit in America would accomplish little due to the American legal system’s burden of proof in libel.  American law is based on protecting free speech.  Mahfouz would have had to prove that what Ehrenfeld wrote was untrue and that she knew its falsity when she wrote about him.  To bypass the American system, he ordered the book online and had 23 copies shipped to the UK — where it was not published — to pursuit a libel lawsuit there.

Just because the book was bought in England would not – under the American law – give the British courts jurisdiction over Ehrenfeld. She didn’t live there, do business there, or otherwise have sufficient contacts with England to say she would be subject to their laws.  But – once again – that jurisdictional requirement in the US is aimed at fairness in the courts to protect people from lawsuits such as libel tourism.  Here again, the British laws don’t include these protections.  And that’s why Mahfouz’s lawsuit in England is “libel tourism.” According to the documentary, Britain is “fertile ground for foreign born libel suits” and has “made London the capital for this type of lawsuit.”

When Ehrenfeld lost the case by refusing to recognize the British Court’s power over her free speech in America, she was fined and ordered to pay Mahfouz’s legal fees.
Ehrenfeld ignored the court orders and instead sought protection by suing Mahfouz in a U.S. federal court.

According to the film, the US Second Ccircuit Ccourt of Appeals ruled in June 2007 that “the case had merits to go forward” and that all American writers and publishers sued for libel in other countries can appeal U.S. courts to rule the decisions unenforceable in America.

On November 15, a New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the case, which is awaiting further development.

The film notes, however, that Mahfouz has a reputation for winning such legal battles. He is the one who sued Cambridge University Press for publishing the book, “Alms for Jihad,” which claims he has and maintains connections with Osama bin Laden. With little fight, the publishing company destroyed all copies of the book, issued an apology and made payments to him.

“By suing so many, he managed to silence the media from reporting about not only how he – Mahfouz funding terrorism — but how others are funding terrorism too,” said Ehrenfeld in the documentary.

The limitless wealth of these Saudis forces most victims of libel tourism to settle, which serves to strengthen the Saudi’s global influence. The outcome of Ehrenfeld’s case may prove an important precedent for the future of libel tourism.

The stakes in Ehrenfeld’s case are enormous.  Will foreign courts be able to limit what American writers write under their own laws and without regard to the First Amendment? 

Terrorists and their apologists – as well as their supporters, including many Saudis – will use any means to accomplish the goal of destroying freedom.  If they can use British courts to kill free speech in America, they will have taken away from us one of the freedoms that we use best to defeat them. 

Dr. Ehrenfeld’s case will either be decided in her favor by the Second Circuit or, eventually, by the US Supreme Court.  As “The Libel Tourist” shows, we should all be fighting the battle with her, and against those who would silence us all. 

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