Thursday, July 15, 2010

Free Speech Protection Act Advances in Congress

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation that would prohibit federal courts from enforcing foreign libel judgments in the United States, in cases where the alleged offense would not constitute libel under the U.S. Constitution.

The bill, now called the SPEECH Act, now goes to both the Senate and the House for what is expected to be approval.

Here is the text of the bill.

The issue is the growing number of libel lawsuits filed in foreign countries against Americans, for speech (or writings) made in the U.S. that someone in another country doesn't like. That is, you say something here and some known terrorism financier in, say, Saudi Arabia takes exception to it and sues you in a foreign court -- even traveling to, say, Britain to do so. That's what happened to the American scholar and author Rachel Ehrenfeld, who fought back. Dr. Ehrenfeld's case led to a law in New York state against enforcement of judgments in specious foreign libel suits. A handful of other states copied the New York law and now it looks as if the issue will be addressed nationally with a federal law.

Such suits always maintain that, even if the the allegedly offensive comments were not published in the foreign country, they nevertheless were available everywhere in the world on the Internet.

The threat to free speech doesn't just affect authors, journalists and bloggers. It affects scientific (and medical) researchers, speakers, and even users of social networking. If someone in any foreign country takes exception to something you say here that is utterly protected by the U.S. First Amendment, that aggrieved person can file suit in a foreign country that has weak or nonexistent free speech protections -- and then attempt to enforce that judgment in the U.S.

The federal law would put an end to that.

(In Arizona, one of the states where such legislation had momentum, the proposed state law has stalled in the state House after it passed 30-0 in the state Senate earlier this year. It isn't clear to me (yet) why proponents of that law, including the Arizona Republic newspaper, have now gone into hiding.)

I do have a dog in this fight, as is well known. I'm being sued for libel in Brazil after I reported (utterly accurately) on surviving a mid-air collision over the Amazon in 2006, and on the cover-up in Brazil over the causes of that crash. The charges are not only false but ridiculous, and would be laughed out of any court in the U.S. -- but the suit is real.


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