The SPEECH Act has all the earmarks of bad legislation, starting with the strained acronym in its name (which stands for "Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage"). Its chief sponsors in the Senate include Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Worst of all, it passed the Senate unanimously yesterday and is expected to win easy House approval within a few days. Has anything good ever emerged from such circumstances?
Well, now something has. The SPEECH Act, aimed at discouraging "libel tourism," would let Americans block enforcement of foreign defamation judgments on First Amendment grounds. The law was championed by Israeli-American criminologist Rachel Ehrenfeld, who faced a British lawsuit by Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz over her 2003 book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed—and How to Stop It. Other writers, including Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, have likewise been grabbed by the long arm of British libel law, which is much more plaintiff-friendly than U.S. law (although that may change). The Guardian sums up the issue:
Many places, including Britain, currently have stricter libel laws than the US, leading to libel tourism, where plaintiffs search for a jurisdiction most likely to be sympathetic to their case. Some human rights campaigners and legal scholars saying the practice is used by the rich and powerful to stifle dissent and criticism. The growth of publishing on the internet has sparked fears that libel tourism will grow rapidly in coming years.
The ACLU makes the case for the SPEECH Act here (PDF).