California became the latest state to ban enforcement of bogus foreign libel judgments against Americans when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this bill into law last night.
These troubling foreign libel cases, which fall broadly under the heading of "libel tourism," typically involve a judgment obtained in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who has been sued for libel for something written in the U.S., which would be fully protected as free speech under the U.S. Constitution.
The main case that triggered the legislation in California and a small number of other states, including New York, involved Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York author and academic who was sued by a Saudi billionaire in a British court known for being favorable toward libel plaintiffs who travel to the UK to shop for judgments.
The Saudi businessman, who objected to his brief depiction in Dr. Ehrenfeld's 2003 book on Saudi financing of Al Qaeda terrorist activities, "Funding Evil," won a $200,000 judgment against Ehrenfeld in the pliant British court, even though the book was largely unavailable in the UK and Ehrenfeld's mention of the Saudi would not have constituted libel in the United States.
The most recent twist in this awful phenomenon, of course, involves me. I was sued for libel and defamation of Brazil, in a bizarre case in which it was claimed that an "insult" to the dignity of Brazil constituted an injury to every citizen of that country.
The case stems from the horrific mid-air collision that I luckily survived over the Amazon in 2006, and ostensibly concerns statements about air-travel safety in Brazil that I allegedly wrote or made, including reporting and commentary on Brazil's atrocious handling of the investigation, or about Brazil's faulty air-traffic control system, which was found to have been the major cause of the crash.
I did argue forcefully against what I saw as Brazil's failure to address obvious flaws in its air-traffic safety while rushing to scapegoat two American pilots. But weirdly, the Brazil lawsuit presents as evidence comments that I never even made, and which actually were picked up from Brazilian blogs or news sites that linked to a blog I wrote, and discontinued in January 2008. That lawsuit, which accuses me of calling Brazil "most idiot of all idiots," among other bizarre charges, seeks a judgment against me in the United States of nearly $300,000.
A New York law firm, Grant, Herrmann, Schwartz & Klinger, is assisting the Brazilians in this suit, and had the papers delivered to me at my home in New Jersey a a few weeks ago.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, among other groups, including the Business Travel Coalition, denounced the Brazil suit as an assault against free speech in the U.S.
New Jersey is considering passing a bill, introduced by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, similar to the one that just passed in California.
There is also a federal bill pending in the Senate, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter, that would protect all Americans from libel judgments in a foreign country for speech in the United States that would be fully protected under U.S. law.