Friday, January 4, 2008

Ehrenfeld: British Libel Judgment Upheld by NY Court; First Amendment Implications Debated

A New York state appeals court ruled in Ehrenfeld v. Mahfouz that it did not have jurisdiction to declare a British libel judgment unenforceable on First Amendment grounds.  In 2005, a British court ordered American author Rachel Ehrenfeld to pay $60,000 for accusing a Saudi billionaire of having ties to terrorism in her 2003 book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed - and How to Stop It.  Ehrenfeld claims that as a result of the judgment, she has abandoned certain projects and watered down others in order to comply with British libel laws.  Though Mahfouz had not yet tried to enforce the British judgment, she asked a domestic court to declare it unenforceable on the grounds that it would violate federal and state free speech laws.  The court declined to do so.

So far, commentators are split on the significance on the Ehrenfeld ruling.  The New York Sun described the case as a test of how state courts would respond when US authors seek to block foreign judgments that conflict with the First Amendment, adding that the decision reflects a disturbing trend in "libel tourism" that promotes law suits against authors and journalists in nations where libel laws are more favorable to plaintiffs than in the US.  In line with that view, Findlaw's Julie Hilden predicts that Ehrenfeld will have "significant First Amendment implications" in an age of global internet e-publishing.  Yet attorney Douglas Lee's post at The First Amendment Center describes Ehrenfeld as a relatively "routine" case grounded in rules of civil procedure that prevent New York courts from exercising personal jurisdiction over a foreign judgment holder who has not yet attempted to enforce the judgment.  Had Mahfouz tried to enforce the British judgment in New York, jurisdiction would have attached, bringing into focus the First Amendment concerns related to "libel tourism."   

-Kathleen A. Bergin

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