Pulped Nonfiction


In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Michael Broyde and Deborah Lipstadt, professors of law and Jewish studies, respectively, at Emory University, decry "libel tourism," in which unhappy book subjects use plaintiff-friendly defamation laws to punish, silence, and intimidate their critics. They cite a 2004 suit that Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz filed against Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of a 2003 book, Funding Evil, that charges him with financing Osama bin Laden and other terrorists:

Mr. bin Mahfouz sued Ms. Ehrenfeld for libel in Britain, where libel laws impose an onerous burden on authors to prove the truth of their statements, and in 2005 won a default judgment ordering her to apologize, destroy all copies of the book and pay the sheik roughly $230,000 in damages.

The book had never been published or sold in Britain, but about 20 people had ordered it online and had it shipped there. British courts asserted jurisdiction, and Ms. Ehrenfeld found herself subject to the laws of another country.

The touchy Bin Mahfouz—co-founder of the Muwafaq Foundation, which the U.S. Treasury Department considers an Al Qaeda front—was also behind a decision by Cambridge University Press to pulp the 2006 book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, an outcome he achieved simply by threatening legal action. Look for an interview with a co-author of that book in the December issue of reason.

But the Ehrenfeld decision goes further, since Alms for Jihad at least had a British publisher. Under the logic of this ruling, books never officially released in the U.K.—including books whose publishers decided against releasing them there precisely because they feared the legal peril that doing so would entail—are still subject to British libel laws if people in the U.K. (say, would-be libel plaintiffs or their friends) happen to order the book online. As Broyde and Lipstadt note, "it appears that wealthy and powerful people who object to a book can simply find a country with sympathetic laws, have a book shipped there and sue." U.S. courts have yet to decide whether the order against Ehrenfeld can be enforced here.

Oddly, Broyde and Lipstadt's piece does not mention Lipstadt's own brush with British libel law, in which she triumphed over revisionist historian David Irving, who sued her over her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. In that case, Lipstadt's publisher, Penguin, stood by her, unlike Cambridge in the Alms for Jihad case.

Earlier this month Michael Moynihan noted David Irving's comeback tour.

[Misspelled name fixed.]