October 05, 2008

Protecting Americans' Speech, Internationally

It's been a busy week, so I'm just catching up on my publishing news today as I nurse the sniffles. The Association of American Publishers put out a press release about a week ago, lauding the passage in the U.S. House of H.R. 6146 "to prohibit recognition and enforcement of foreign defamation judgments."

AAP President and CEO Pat Schroeder expressed thanks on behalf of the publishing industry to members of Congress for focusing attention on the serious problem of libel tourism, and called passage of H.R. 6146 a “strong and encouraging step forward.” “Libel tourism is an insidious threat. It seeks to intimidate and silence American authors and deprive us of vital information on issues of public concern. I hope we can build on H.R. 6146 with hearings in the new Congress that will shine a light into this dark corner,” Mrs. Schroeder said.

Libel tourism is the practice of filing a libel suit in a country with very strict libel laws (generally England, Wales or Australia) against a party in a more permissive country on the basis of work published in the more permissive country. Internet distribution or small batches of imported materials are being used to establish jurisdiction.

The most well-known cases involve celebrities going after gossip mags. However, the practice has recently been applied to a number of scholars writing about the spread and funding of terrorism. Some authors have seen their books pulled from publication; others have had substantial monetary judgments entered against them in foreign courts.

The fighting back has begun, however. The American Library Association has laid claim to the copies of one recalled book that are in library possession. One author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, countersued in a New York court to determine that the British ruling in her case is void in the U.S. because it interferes with her First Amendment rights. "Rachel's Law" was passed in New York state in March, stating that First Amendment rights supersede the practice of comity, or legal reciprocity with other countries.

In passing H.R. 6146, the U.S. House of Representatives has said it agrees. However, for all of us to receive the same guarantee from the federal government that New York citizens have been given by the state, the Senate needs to vote on S. 2977, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2008. Then the differences need to be ironed out in committee and the compromise bill passed. All that before the end of the year and in the midst of election season.

So contact your senators and tell them to get on this now. It shouldn't be that hard a decision. Sure, the celebrities may suffer a little, because you know that without the British courts, everyone believes everything they read in the National Enquirer. Besides, one of these days, Adnan Oktar is going to get bored filing libel suits to keep the population of Turkey off the internet (here's one way around that, by the way), and he's going to come after all the U.S. scientists/bloggers who have dared to call his brand of creationism complete hooey.

Let's get the law in place before then.

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