Freedom of Speech is Not Dead in America
By: Katrina Jorgensen
If you look at today’s headlines, it might appear that Americans have lost the battle over First Amendment Rights. Despite regular lamentations in the media about one group trampling the fundamental rights of another group, on the whole, the U.S. has done right by the individual. Compared to other countries, even our European cousins, America has held freedom of speech in the highest regard, especially the written word.
Take, for example, the soon-to-be-released book “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?” by Karen Dawisha. This daring book alleges that President Putin could be connected to organized crime in Russia. Simon & Schuster, an American company, printed the book after British publisher, Cambridge University Press rejected it.
Why would British publishers not want to circulate this scholarly work that Dawisha spent five years researching? It’s called “libel tourism”. Starting in the early 2000s, lawsuits targeting books alleging terrorism or criminal activity began to pop-up in UK. In America, the plaintiff of a libel case must prove the presented material is false and defamatory, but in England and other European countries that burden goes to the author or publisher. The term “libel tourism” describes the process of shopping for a country with these kinds of laws to pursue a libel lawsuit. Cambridge University Press has published several other books by Dawisha but because of these laws, the publisher didn’t want to run the risk of a libel suit from Russia.
In 2003, an American author, Rachel Ehrenfeld wrote a book, “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It.” 23 copies of the book sold in the UK. The book connected a Saudi, Khalid Bin Mahfouz to Osama bin Laden. Mahfouz filed a lawsuit in the UK and won. Mahfouz went on to target at least four more books and threatened lawsuits against over two dozen authors. The most famous case involved a book called “Alms for Jihad:Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World” in 2007, written by two Americans, by J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins. The mere threat of a lawsuit from Mahfouz convinced Dawisha’s publisher, Cambridge University Press, to destroy all copies of the book.
The reaction of the Cambridge University Press to the American book convinced Congress to take action. After this particular lawsuit, a bipartisan bill was introduced in both the House and Senate called The Free Speech Protection Act of 2008. In essence, the bill prevented U.S. courts from applying any judgments from libel lawsuits overseas (unless, of course, the speech was not protected by U.S. law). Further, the bill allowed authors to countersue and juries to award for damages for suppression of freedom of speech.
These libel suits do not protect anyone, they censor the truth. Those who participate in criminal activity, such as the funding of terrorism, obviously have no desire for the world to know their secrets. Every author who exposes these criminals is at risk, but other governments fail to protect these citizens. Frivolous lawsuits can easily silence European authors. Only America has made the defense of this freedom a priority.