Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Speech Act, Protecting Americans Against Frivolous Foreign Libel Suits, Becomes Law

[Photo: President Obama signs the SPEECH Act into law. Right is Rep. Steve Cohen, the author of the final version of the bill that passed unanimously in both the House and Senate]

I am very happy to share this e-mail today from Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, the driving force behind the SPEECH Act, which President Obama signed into law today.

Great news! I am delighted to inform you that the SPEECH Act (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage) - a law which I have initiated promoted over the last two years - was signed into law today by the President.

This new law will uphold First Amendment protections for American free expression by guarding American authors and publishers from the enforcement of frivolous foreign libel suits, filed in countries that do not have our strong free speech protections.

No longer will libel tourists be able to suppress the rights of American scholars, writers and journalists to speak, write and publish freely in print and on the Internet.

* The SPEECH Act is of monumental importance to national security and the protection of free speech.
* The SPEECH Act allows Americans to expose the enemies of freedom and democracy without fear of foreign intimidation.
* The SPEECH Act protects all Americans in the manner that the First Amendment was designed to guarantee.

Congratulations and thank you to all of the legislatures, their staffs, and the many individuals and organizations that helped with this historic legislation."

Rachel Ehrenfeld, Ph.D.
American Center for Democracy

To which I will only add: Hear, hear!


And here's the press release from the office of Rep. Steve Cohen, the author of the House bill that eventually was adopted as the final version of the law, and passed unanimously in the House and Senate within recent weeks:

Aug 10,2010 - WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Obama today signed into law legislation Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-9) authored – the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act – to protect American authors, journalists and publishers from foreign defamation judgments that undermine the First Amendment and American due process standards.

“Libel tourism threatens to undermine free speech in the U.S. because, with the rise of the Internet and foreign courts’ liberal exercise of personal jurisdiction over Americans, foreign defamation law that lacks the constitutionally mandated speech-protective features of U.S. law can be applied to publications that are substantially or entirely distributed in the U.S.,” said Congressman Cohen, who attended the bill signing at the White House. “Our First Amendment rights are among the most fundamental principles laid out in the Constitution. It is vital we ensure that these rights are never undermined by foreign judgments. I appreciate Senators Leahy and Sessions helping guide this bill through Congress to become law.”

Congressman Cohen recently spoke on the House floor about his legislation. Click here to see his remarks.

“Libel tourism” refers to forum shopping by defamation plaintiffs seeking to exploit plaintiff-friendly defamation laws in foreign countries in an attempt to silence or intimidate American journalists, authors and publishers. The issue of libel tourism came to the forefront as a result of the case of Ehrenfeld v. bin Mahfouz, which involved a U.S. author who was sued for libel in England by a Saudi billionaire.

The author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, was unsuccessful in her effort to have an English default judgment against her declared unenforceable in the U.S. This prompted the New York State Legislature to enact legislation – the first of its kind in the U.S. – prohibiting enforcement of a foreign libel judgment unless a court in New York determines that it satisfies the free speech and press protections guaranteed by the U.S. and New York State constitutions.

Last year Congressman Cohen – who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law – chaired a hearing where Dr. Ehrenfeld testified. The Congressman’s legislation passed the House of Representatives last year and was modified by the Senate and approved in July. The Senate sponsors of the measure are Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and Ranking Member Jeff Sessions.

The measure 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, renowned First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey.


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