A Town Called Sue

Libel tourism

In 1999 Icelandic economist Hannes Gissurarson was sued in a British court for comments he made on an Icelandic website about an Icelandic colleague. According to the London Times, the case has cost Gissurarson more than £150,000, forcing him to sell his home. (It has not yet been resolved.) The case illustrates the “libel tourism” that has earned London the derisive appellation “a town called sue.”

In 2005 Cambridge University Press pulped the academic book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World in response to a libel lawsuit brought by the Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, whom the book’s authors accused of financing Islamic radicalism. The publisher pulled the book from its catalog and took the unprecedented step of requesting that libraries return all purchased copies to be destroyed. Bin Mahfouz also sued Rachel Ehrenfeld —the American author of Funding Evil, which made similar accusations—in London, even though she sold only 23 copies of the book in the United Kingdom. As of 2006, the civil libertarian writer and attorney Harvey Silverglate noted at the time, bin Mahfouz “has sued or threatened suit in England 33 times.”

In the United States, the Ehrenfeld case prompted the New York legislature to pass the Libel Terrorism Reform Act, invalidating foreign defamation judgments against New York residents. Congress is considering a similar law that would bar enforcement of such verdicts against any Americans.

All this attention from across the pond has forced U.K. Justice Secretary Jack Straw to acknowledge that the British legal system “has become unbalanced.” He has assembled a panel of experts to propose reforms of the country’s libel laws. 

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