BY CINDY SAINE FOR VOA NEWS FROM CAPITOL HILL – The United States Senate has unanimously approved bipartisan legislation to protect American journalists, authors and publishers from foreign libel lawsuits that undermine the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech and freedom of the press.
The free speech bill’s chief sponsor, Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, hailed the passage, saying the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution is the cornerstone of American democracy.
“It is the basis of our democracy. It guarantees us the right to practice any religion we want, or none if we want,” he said. “And it protects the right of free speech. Those protections guarantee diversity. And if you have a constitution that guarantees diversity, you guarantee a democracy. And that is what this does.”
The unanimous voice vote sends the bill back to the House of Representatives for final approval. From there it would go to President Barack Obama to be signed into law. Approval is expected because there is broad, bipartisan support for the legislation.
Senator Leahy said libel judgments in certain foreign courts are undermining freedom of speech and are having a chilling effect on open debate in the United States. He said the bill would prevent U.S. courts from becoming a tool to undermine the Constitution.
The law was modeled on a New York state law that was inspired by author Rachel Ehrenfeld who faced a libel lawsuit in Britain over her book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It.” Ehrenfeld refused to go to London to be tried under what she calls “archaic, plaintiff-friendly” libel laws.
The new law passed in the Senate would not allow U.S. courts to enforce foreign libel judgments against U.S. defendants when they are inconsistent with First Amendment protections.
The American Civil Liberties Union Chief Legislative and Policy Counsel, Michael Macleod-Ball, welcomed Senate passage of the bill as an important, bipartisan step forward for free speech. He said the practice of filing libel lawsuits in countries that have weaker free speech protections, a practice known as “libel tourism,” is increasing with the ease of electronic communications, and that Britain is a popular place to file such lawsuits.
“The United Kingdom has traditionally had libel laws that just don’t stand up under the free speech tests that are accepted internationally,” he said.
Macleod-Ball says he hopes that passage of the legislation in the United States will not only protect Americans’ right to free speech, but that it will also inspire other countries to enact laws that protect freedom of speech around the world.