Patrick Smith, a pilot for a major airline and the "Ask the Pilot" columnist for Salon, is always a sensible and informative voice on issues related to air travel and aviation in general.
He is also a stand-up guy, as evidenced by his column today on the libel suit against me on the ridiculous charge that I offended the "honor" of Brazil by my reporting and commentary, in the mainstream media and on my personal blog, about air safety and justice in Brazil after the horrific 2006 mid-air collision over the Amazon.
(That blog, www.sharkeyonbrazil.blogspot.com, went inactive in January 2008 because I said all I thought I needed to say about lax air safety over the Amazon and the terrible way the Brazilian authorities handled an investigation into a crash that killed 154 people. I was one of seven survivors.)
I've been somewhat dismayed in recent months by the utter lack of interest in this weird but important case shown by self-styled U.S. media watchdogs such as the Poynter Institute's Romenesko media site, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Columbia Journalism Review -- whose editors did not even deign to reply to my e-mails or phone calls. To me, it's been a lesson in the dangers of "kept" journalism, where subsidized watchdogs behave more like poodles, yapping at the mailman, cowering at the burglar.
On the other hand, the Brazil case has been taken up by major First Amendment attorneys and by staffers in the offices of Sens. Arlen Specter, Charles Schumer and, lately, Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That's important because the Judiciary Committee is where a key piece of legislation, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, is currently stalled.
The Free Speech Protection Act (S.449) would prohibit enforcement of foreign libel judgments in cases that would never hold water in the United States. That is, the law would protect journalists and others (see next paragraph) from being silenced and recklessly intimidated by some foreign government, or person in a foreign country, taking offense at something written or said in the United States that is fully protected speech under the U.S. Constitution.
When I say it would protect "others" besides journalists, I am being quite serious. In Britain, where libel courts have become a national disgrace, U.S. scientists have been sued for debunking fraud in articles written in the U.S. Rachel Ehrenfeld, an author and professor, lost a libel case to a rich Saudi terrorism financier who took exception to a few mentions of himself in a book she wrote about financial sources for al Qaeda.
In Canada, an American author, Paul Williams, is being sued by a university for reporting -- in the United States -- on a terrorist cell based at that university. Paul has spent $100,000 of his own money so far to defend himself.
In Brazil, as Patrick Smith notes in his column, numerous Brazilian journalists and others have been backed down by frivolous lawsuits. Brazil's young and shaky tradition of free speech is in serious question.
Journalists, bloggers, authors, travel writers, food critics, sports writers, policy-makers, corporate travel managers issuing country alerts, scientists, even casual users of social networking sites -- all stand vulnerable because these foreign judgments are invariably based on the argument that anything that appears on the Internet, no matter where it originated, is fair game for a libel suit.
In my case, the Brazilians have gone even further -- maintaining that my reporting on the way Brazilian authorities botched the investigation into the crash and rushed to scapegoat the two American pilots constituted an injury to each and every citizen of Brazil. The plaintiff in the case is a person I never heard of -- and certainly never wrote or spoke a word about -- till the lawsuit was filed. In the suit, she claims she "feels discriminated against" by my reporting on air safety in Brazil -- which reporting has been shown to be absolutely accurate, incidentally.
And as I noted earlier this week, there's now an attempt underway to add a criminal charge to the case against me, on the asinine ground that I impeded justice by writing favorably about the two American pilots.
If such legal precedents stand internationally (and remember, a foreign judgment against someone, even if it is ridiculous, still stands as a judgment and can impede international travel), free speech in the United States is in peril. Any nation that feels treated with insufficient reverence by someone in the U.S. could reach across international borders and effectively nullify the First Amendment.
The Free Speech Protection Act of 2009 would at least mitigate some of that threat. Besides Sens. Specter and Schumer, its co-sponsors are Sens. Lieberman and Wyden. But Sen. Leahy is the key figure, because he's the one who can get the bill out of committee.