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Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld Headshot

New Yorkers Blaze Free Speech Trail

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Most Americans take their freedom for granted. Coming from the Middle East and working all over the world, I know better. Elsewhere, free speech and a free press are regarded as privileges, not a sacred right.

Take England for example: in January 2004 I was sued in London, by Saudi billionaire and terror-financier, Khalid bin Mahfouz, former banker to the Saudi royal family and owner of the largest bank in the Middle East. Mahfouz bristled at my book Funding Evil; How Terrorism is Financed - and How to Stop It which investigated heavily documented allegations of his terror financing.

Mahfouz sued me in England where libel law favors plaintiffs, and permits foreigners to sue other foreigners if allegedly defamatory words somehow reached British shores. The U.N. Human Rights Commission recently criticized Britain's libel laws for serving "to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as libel tourism." In my case, Mahfouz alleged that twenty-three copies of Funding Evil, published only in the U.S., were purchased in England via the Internet. The identity of those purchasers was never revealed.

Mahfouz is the quintessential "libel tourist" who cows his critics in English courts. His website boasts of having coerced more than forty retractions or judgments against those who linked him to terrorism. His London litigation became frenzied after the 9/11 attacks on America because families of the 9/11 victims sued him in New York as an al-Qaeda financier. None of his English legal actions have been tried on the merits. If found liable for financing 9/11, Mahfouz faces a damage award in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Thus, he is uses lawfare to silence his critics.

Why do Saudis like Mahfouz seek to enforce a de facto international code of silence? What is it that threatens them most? The Truth.

Radical Islam spread by the Saudis the world over is a totalitarian socio-political alternative to democracy and antidote to hated Western freedoms. Hence, when Mahfouz sued me, I realized something more was at stake than my book and the particulars involving him. Instead, freedom was at stake. Indeed, fighting libel tourism today is, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the "felt necessities of the time."

I refused to recognize the authority of the English court. Instead, I decided to fight Mahfouz here where free press rights are better protected, and pre-trial discovery of the adverse party's evidence is much broader than in England. The New York courts agreed that mine was an important First Amendment case, but ruled they did not have personal jurisdiction over Mahfouz.

In stepped New York Assemblyman Rory Lanceman (D) and Senate Majority Leader, Dean G. Skelos (R), who, in less than three months, convinced the New York Legislature to unanimously pass a new law providing such jurisdiction.

Last April, Gov. David A. Paterson signed "The Libel Terrorism Protection Act," dubbed by the media as "Rachel's Law," a groundbreaking, bi-partisan effort to protect authors and publishers in New York, the publishing capital of the United States, from foreigners who seek to undermine American free press rights from abroad. The Illinois legislature followed suit shortly thereafter and passed an almost identical law.

The New York law spurred a bi-partisan effort in Congress to pass a national version of "Rachel's Law" entitled the Free Speech Protection Act. That bill was introduced by Congressmen Peter King (R), and Anthony Weiner (D), and Senators Arlen Specter (R), Joseph Lieberman (I) and Charles Schumer (D). It is supported by a wide range of free speech and other organizations in the U.S.

Mahfouz surely never expected his attempts to undermine American freedoms from abroad would have provoked a firestorm of commentary and legislation. In the session just passed, Congress failed to pass the Free Speech Protection Act.

Therefore, when the Congress reconvenes, it should follow the trail blazed by New Yorkers and pass this important law to protect all Americans who seek to speak or write in the "uninhibited, robust and wide-open" manner the First Amendment was designed to guarantee.

Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil; How Terrorism is Financed - and How to Stop It, is director of the New York based American