Politics

America’s First Amendment Lifeline

World War II began long before the outbreak of military hostilities, with the Nazi campaign to silence its critics. Yet 63 years after the end of World War II, the U.S. today faces new threats to free speech.

Islamic terrorists and their advocates have increasingly succeeded in silencing critics of hatred and inhumanity, much as the Nazis silenced theirs, through intimidation — but also now, through the courts.

The presidential candidates should all speak up, but unfortunately, none have yet addressed the issue.

Hillary Clinton has a gigantic $10 million “conflict of interest,” in the form of Saudi donations to the Clinton Library and Foundation, according to former Clinton political consultant Dick Morris and Eileen McGann. But Democrats Barak Obama and John Edwards and Republicans Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee have also been eerily silent.

The battle lines are particularly sharp in New York State. There, the Court of Appeals ruled on Dec. 20, 2007 that under current “long-arm” statutes governing business transactions, New York lacks jurisdiction to protect author Rachel Ehrenfeld, whom Saudi billionaire Khalid Bin Mahfouz sued for “libel” in London’s High Court of Justice. Mahfouz sued Ehrenfeld after the 2003, U.S. publication of her book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed–and How to Stop It, which noted that Mahfouz and his family financially supported al-Qaeda and other “Islamist terror groups.”

Only 23 copies of Ehrenfeld’s book sold in England–over over the Internet–but Mahfouz won in the U.K. by default. On learning that former CIA director R. James Woolsey wrote the book’s foreword, U.K. Justice David Eady stated, “Say no more. I award you a judgment by default, and if you want, an injunction, too.” He ordered Ehrenfeld to apologize, retract, pay $225,913.37 in damages and destroy remaining copies. In a case still pending before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Ehrenfeld asked the Southern District Court of New York to protect the First Amendment and rule the U.K. judgment unenforceable here.

To protect authors, journalists and First Amendment freedoms, Sen. Dean G. Skelos and Assemblyman Rory I. Lancman on January 13 introduced bi-partisan legislation to establish local jurisdiction. This would deter foreigners from suing and imperiling New York writers and the First Amendment, with the obvious intent of changing U.S. libel laws via overseas courts.   

Authors in many states, indeed, nationwide, hope New York will swiftly pass the legislation, and that other states and the U.S. Congress will follow the New York lead. The life blood of Democracy could hang in the balance.

No country has free speech protections as strong as those in the U.S., noted First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, who was present Jan. 13 and supports the New York state bill. Moreover, many U.S. federal documents and Congressional testimonies have implicated Mahfouz for terror financing.

Yet in the last decade, the Saudi billionaire has threatened or successfully sued over 40 authors and publishers in the United Kingdom–including numerous Americans–for reports on terror funding that mentioned him. Without trying a single case on its merits, Mahfouz extracted settlements, default judgments, apologies, retractions and fines in all his British “libel” cases–except in the case of Ehrenfeld. Mahfouz’ suits, and others like them, have created an enormous “chilling effect” on free speech, says Ehrenfeld’s New York-based attorney, Daniel Kornstein.

The threat of lawsuits has so the publishing community that many authors are censoring themselves, and many publishers simply refuse to address terror funding at all.

To safeguard America’s publishing capital, New York legislators of all stripes should rush to co-sponsor and pass the new bill. As Senate deputy majority leader Skelos from Rockville Center and Queens Democrat Lancman noted on in a Jan. 13 news conference outside the New York Public Library, the London ruling against Ehrenfeld opened the door to “assault by foreign nationals seeking to silence public debate in America” despite the U.S. Constitutional guarantee of protected free-speech.

The Skelos and Lancman bill would amend New York law to give state courts jurisdiction in cases like Ehrenfeld’s. Local courts could declare foreign judgments unenforceable unless the foreign country provides free-speech protections equivalent to those of the First Amendment. This would be especially helpful in cases concerning reporting on terrorism–but also in other frivolous libel cases filed to intimidate American writers and publishers.

The legislation will “protect American authors and journalists from being dragged into kangaroo courts over phony baloney libel charges in jurisdictions that don’t respect freedom of speech and of the press as we do here in the United States,” Lancman said.

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