Senior US politicians unveiled legislation on Tuesday to shield US journalists, authors and publishers from “libel tourists” who file suit in countries where they expect to get the most favourable ruling.
“England, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore are just a few of the countries whose weak libel protections have attracted libel lawsuits against American journalists and authors,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
“This threat to American free speech must end, and the time to act is now,” Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said as he unveiled the bill with the panel’s top Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions.
The measure would prevent US federal courts from recognising or enforcing a foreign judgment for defamation that is inconsistent with the first amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
That cherished amendment, backed by a series of US Supreme Court decisions, makes it harder to win a libel suit in the United States relative to many other countries.
“This bipartisan legislation guarantees that a foreign defamation judgment cannot be enforced in the United States if that country’s libel standards are inconsistent with American law,” said Leahy.
The bill is “a needed first step to ensure that weak free-speech protections and abusive legal practices in foreign countries do not prevent Americans from fully exercising their constitutional right to speak and debate freely,” said Sessions.
Leahy’s office pointed to internet publication as a leading cause of a rise in libel lawsuits “regardless of whether the writer or publisher has any significant connections to the foreign forum.”
“The lawsuits are often filed in countries with weak free speech protections, increasing the filer’s chance of prevailing,” it said in a statement.