When a piece of legislation with a strained, acronym-grasping name sails through both houses of Congress, it usually isn’t good news for liberty. The Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act, which the Senate approved by unanimous consent in July and the House approved by a voice vote the same month, is an exception.
The SPEECH Act, which allows Americans to block enforcement of foreign defamation judgments on First Amendment grounds, is aimed at discouraging “libel tourism.” With written material available worldwide on the Internet, wealthy plaintiffs can easily go forum shopping, choosing the venues where they are most likely to win and making Americans subject to damages under standards that would never pass constitutional muster in the United States.
The new law was championed by the Israeli-American criminologist Rachel Ehrenfeld, whom Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz sued over her 2003 book Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed—and How to Stop It. Like many touchy rich guys, Mahfouz chose to file suit in the U.K., even though only 23 copies of Ehrenfeld’s book were sold there, because British libel law is notoriously friendly to plaintiffs, requiring authors to prove the truth of any challenged statement. In the U.S., by contrast, plaintiffs have to prove the statement was false; if they are deemed to be public figures, they also must show that the author knew the statement was false or made it with reckless disregard for its truth.