The Senate Monday unanimously approved bipartisan legislation authored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to protect American authors,
journalists, publishers, researchers and others from foreign libel lawsuits that undermine the First Amendment. The bill, called the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act, now goes to the
House of Representatives.
Leahy said, "The freedoms of speech and the press are cornerstones of our
democracy. They enable vigorous debate, and an exchange of ideas that shapes our political process. Foreign libel lawsuits are undermining this informational exchange. While we cannot legislate changes to foreign law that are chilling protected speech in our country, we can ensure that our courts do not become a tool to uphold foreign libel judgments that undermine American First Amendment or due
Sessions said, "This bill will allow American writers to clear their names when they are improperly found by a foreign court to have committed libel. It will also bar enforcement in this country of foreign libel judgments that are contrary to our Constitution and laws. In short, this bill is a needed first step to ensure that
weak free-speech protections and abusive legal practices in foreign countries do not prevent Americans from fully exercising their constitutional right to speak and debate freely."
Leahy and Sessions are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which unanimously approved the legislation on July 13. The SPEECH Act provides protections from foreign libel suits and prevents a U.S. federal court from recognizing or enforcing a foreign judgment for defamation that is inconsistent with the First Amendment.
The bill also provides a separate declaratory judgment remedy for an author or publisher who wishes to demonstrate that a foreign judgment would not be enforceable under American law, even where the foreign party has not attempted to enforce the judgment in the United States. This provision would allow authors and publishers to clear their names, regardless of the actions of the foreign party.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) is the author of similar legislation (H.R. 2765), and last year worked to secure the House passage of that bill. The Judiciary Committee adopted the Leahy-Sessions SPEECH Act as an amendment to the House-passed companion
bill. The House is expected to consider the SPEECH Act soon. The SPEECH ACT is supported by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Vermont Library Association, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Civil Liberties Union, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey.