Last week the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments in a case that pits freedom of speech against British libel law. Israeli-American criminologist Rachel Ehrenfeld is challenging a libel judgment against her obtained by Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, whom she identified in her 2003 book Funding Evil as a source of financial support for terrorism. Last June the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit allowed her lawsuit to proceed, but the case hinges to some extent on issues of state law, one of which the New York Court of Appeals is now considering: whether New York's "long arm" statute can reach a defendant such as Bin Mahfouz who is outside the U.S.
Calling Bin Mahfouz to account before a U.S. court seems only fair, given his strategy in trying to shut Ehrenfeld up. Although her book was published in the U.S., Bin Mahfouz sued her in London to take advantage of England's pro-plaintiff libel rules, which he has used to intimidate other critics into silence. The excuse for suing Ehrenfeld in the U.K. was that people there (possibly cronies of Bin Mahfouz) had bought 23 copies of the book online. In 2005 a British judge issued a default judgment against Ehrenfeld, ordering her to apologize, pay Bin Mahfouz about $230,000, and destroy all copies of her book. Jared Lapidus, a fellow at the Moving Picture Institute ("Promoting Freedom Through Film"), has produced an eight-minute documentary about the case, which the prominent civil libertarian (and reason contributor) Harvey Silverglate calls "one of the most important First Amendment cases of the past 25 years." Although Lapidus gets a little distracted by how awful the Saudis are, the video does communicate the dangers of libel tourism pretty well.
I mentioned the Ehrenfeld case on Hit & Run last month. Silverglate considered the implications in a 2006 Boston Globe op-ed piece co-authored by Samuel Abady. Katherine Mangu-Ward interviewed Rob Pfaltzgraff, the Moving Picture Institute's executive director, in the October issue of reason.