Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) have introduced a bipartisan bill that ensures foreign libel judgments cannot be enforced in the US if the foreign country’s defamation laws are inconsistent with protections afforded under the United States Constitution. The bill is being welcomed by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), which are urging its passage.
Compared to other countries, libel law in the US favors journalists and authors and puts a high burden of proof on those seeking damages for defamatory statements, noted SPJ. But in this increasingly global environment for news, some people have been court-shopping to sue American reporters and news organizations in countries which lack protections like the First Amendment.
“The protection for journalists, authors and publishers from foreign libel suits that don’t hold America’s standards for free speech and press is greatly welcomed. We applaud the Senate’s work on this legislation. We have long endorsed this protection and we are delighted that this protective shield is making its way into federal law,” said SPJ President Kevin Z. Smith.
“RTDNA strongly urges Congress to move quickly on this legislation to offer journalists the protection they deserve. We don’t want to see more journalists falling victim to unjust libel suits,” said RTDNA Chairman Mark Kraham.
The Leahy-Sessions bill is called the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act. The legislation would prevent federal courts in the United States from enforcing a foreign judgment for libel that is inconsistent with the First Amendment. The bill also provides a separate declaratory judgment remedy for an author or publisher who wishes to demonstrate that a foreign judgment would not be enforceable under American law, even where the foreign party has not attempted to enforce the judgment in the United States.
Sen. Leahy noted that such countries as England, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore are among those with weak libel protections and have attracted “libel tourists.”
“This important bipartisan legislation will allow American writers to clear their names when they are improperly found by a foreign court to have committed libel. It will also bar enforcement in this country of foreign libel judgments that are contrary to our Constitution and laws. In short, this 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,” Sessions said in a statement.
The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Arlen Specter (D-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
RBR-TVBR observation: Hear, hear! This is a bill that every news organization in the US should heartily support. We also can’t imagine why any Member of Congress from either party would have any reason to oppose it.