Times Online Op-Ed
The state will protect authors against foreign libel judgments after a US journalist was sued by a Saudi businessman in London. Politicians in New York have acted to protect the state’s writers and publishers from so-called libel tourism after an English libel judgment went against an American author.
The Libel Terrorism Protection Act was given a unanimous passage in the state Senate in Albany, the New York Law Journal reported. The new bill was introduced after the New York Court of Appeals ruled in December that the state’s laws did not protect Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American author, from a possible bid by a Saudi Arabian businessman to enforce a summary judgment issued by the High Court in London.
The bill is intended to amend New York’s so-called "long-arm statute" in order to give the state’s courts jurisdiction over a foreign libel claimant who won a judgment against an author or publisher with sufficient physical or financial ties to the state.
It would allow New York’s courts to declare that a foreign judgment was unenforceable if the courts decided that the libel laws in foreign jurisdictions did not protect freedom of speech and the press to the same extent as the laws in New York and the US.
The New York Law Journal reported that the Bill had made “unusually swift” progress since being introduced into the legislature and said new legislation usually took several months, or even years, to reach the floor of the Assembly or Senate.
Dr Ehrenfeld claimed her book, Funding Evil, in which she makes a series of allegations about the charitable activities of wealthy Saudi businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, was protected under the freedom of speech section of the US constitution.
But in a 17-page ruling by Judge Ciparick in December, the New York Court of Appeals in Albany ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over Mr Mahfouz as they found he had not carried out any business in the state.
The Sheikh has always vehemently denied any link with terrorism, or terrorist support or funding, and claimed that the book was defamatory in suggesting that he supported al-Qaeda and terrorism either directly or indirectly.
In January, Democratic Assemblyman Rory Lancman and Republican Senator Dean Skelos introduced the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act” to remedy what they see as a deficiency in the law.
Mr Lancman said: “This legislation will give New York’s journalists, authors and press the protection and tools they need to continue to fearlessly expose the truth about terrorism and its enablers, and to maintain New York’s place as the free speech capitol of the world.”
Mr Skelos added: “The ability to expose the truth about international terrorist activities is critically-important to the global war on terror.
“These foreign courts are trampling the First Amendment protections guaranteed to American writers and journalists by our Constitution and this legislation will ensure that they cannot infringe upon our freedom.”
Senator Martin Golden, who supports the legislation, said: “Under the Libel Terrorism Protection Act, writers and journalists would have foreign defamation suits declared unenforceable in New York unless the foreign law provides the same free speech protections guaranteed under our Constitution.
“In effect, we are giving New Yorkers a chance to have their fair day in court.”
In court papers filed last year, Dr Ehrenfeld described Mr Mahfouz as a “serial libel tourist”.
Her book was never published in the UK but 23 copies entered England.
Mr Mahfouz, who denies all the allegations in the book about the funding of terrorist organisations, turned to English law and brought a successful libel action against her three years ago.
Mr Mahfouz has had a series of victories in English courts, and in August last year, the Cambridge University Press withdrew all copies of Alms for Jihad, a book which took a similar line to Dr Ehrenfeld.
But some American librarians have refused the publishers’ request to withdraw the book from their shelves and surviving copies are for sale for hundreds of pounds on the internet.