Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Free Speech Victory

Ryan Mauro

On August 10, a major victory for freedom of speech was achieved. President Obama signed the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act (SPEECH Act) into law, stopping Americans from being sued for libel by individuals in other countries with inadequate First Amendment rights. The legislation is a defeat for those who would seek to silence Americans speaking out against radical Islam by threatening to bankrupt them with costly lawsuits. The story of the SPEECH Act starts with Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, the director of the American Center for Democracy, who bravely stood up to a Saudi billionaire named Khalid bin Mahfouz who she accused of financing terrorist groups in her book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed–and How to Stop It. Mahfouz, who died of a heart attack on August 16, 2009, targeted Ehrenfeld with a lawsuit as he had done to other authors accusing him of having ties to terrorism.

Taking advantage of the United Kingdom’s libel laws that force the defendant to prove their accusations in court, Mahfouz sued 45 publishers and journalists and all settled, except for Dr. Ehrenfeld. The U.N. Human Rights Committee even reported in 2008 that the laws “discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as ‘libel tourism.’”

The result is that authors and publishers become unwilling to write about characters such as Mahfouz, aware of the cost that a lengthy legal case brings. Those targeted with such lawsuits have great difficulty finding work, as potential employers want to avoid meeting the same fate. This tactic, called “lawfare,” is very effective for nefarious organizations and individuals with the means of suing less wealthy critics into bankruptcy.

Ehrenfeld did not live in the U.K., and did not publish or even promote her book there. However, Mahfouz was able to justify the lawsuit because 23 copies of the book were bought there online. She reacted to the lawsuit by refusing to participate in the proceedings, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction. As a result, she lost by default and she countersued from the United States saying her rights were being violated. The New York Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, and the state passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act, often referred to as “Rachel’s Law.” Illinois, Florida, California, Maryland, Utah and Tennessee followed.

Dr. Ehrenfeld’s allegations against Mahfouz have a solid foundation. Mahfouz founded the Muwaffaq Foundation that was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a financier of Al-Qaeda. The individual chosen by Mahfouz to run the charity, Yassin al-Qadi, was also blacklisted for his links to Al-Qaeda and Hamas.

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