Last week, Rachel Ehrenfeld was honored at the American Jewish Historical Society for her work in exposing sources of terrorism and resisting attempts to silence her. Ehrenfeld is the author of Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It, in which she exposes Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz as a financer of terrorism. In response to the accusation, bin Mahfouz sued Ehrenfeld for libel in British courts — a tactic known as “libel tourism” — on the grounds that 23 copies of Funding Evil, which was only published in the U.S., had been purchased over the Internet and shipped to the UK. He obtained a default judgment and an award of $225,000.
Ehrenfeld chose not to appear in British courts, where libel laws are much more plaintiff friendly. Instead, she sought a declaratory judgment in New York courts holding bin Mahfouz’s judgment invalid. Both the New York Southern District Court and the New York Court of Appeals declined to assert jurisdiction over bin Mahfouz, leaving Ehrenfeld with the often proposed, but rarely successful, method of seeking passage of a new law in the state legislature. In this case, however, the New York Legislature quickly passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act, which Governor David Paterson signed into law in April of this year. The act, nicknamed “Rachel’s Law,” grants New York courts jurisdiction over persons who obtain foreign libel judgments against New York writers or publishers and limits enforcement of foreign libel judgments to those rendered under legal systems that meet the standards of the U.S. First Amendment.
Passage of the New York law led U.S. Rep. Peter King to introduce the Free Speech Protection Act in Congress, co-sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner. The bill would protect U.S. residents from foreign libel judgments if the speech would not be libelous under U.S. law. Arlen Specter, Joseph Lieberman, and Charles Schumer have co-sponsored a Senate version. (There is a particular irony in Senator Schumer’s co-sponsoring legislation to protect free speech rights given his support for reviving the Fairness Doctrine, one of the great threats to free discourse in America.)
The legislation, along with the experience of Rachel Ehrenfeld, is a reminder of the threats that both terrorism and the erosion of free speech pose to our free society. Unfortunately, it is one to which much of the international community at large seems oblivious. The United Nations, in particular, has sanctified attempts to restrict free speech. Last month, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee passed the “Combating Defamation of Religions” measure designed to criminalize “blasphemy” of religions. The 57 member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) sponsored the resolution as an attempt to prevent criticism of Islam, and it is scheduled for a final vote soon.
If anyone still has doubts about the efficacy of the UN, this charade should resolve them. The free world faces a war against an extreme Islamofascist ideology whose advocates seek to destroy democracy and spread Islamic Shari’a law across the globe, and UN bureaucrats are more worried about offending the perpetrators. Furthermore, it is laughable that the OIC, along with Venezuela and Belarus, are seeking to pass worldwide legislation in the name of “tolerance,” although it is the kind of bad joke that observers of the UN should expect. Who could forget the UN’s 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which quickly turned into an attack on the Jewish state of Israel and prompted Secretary of State Colin Powell to leave the conference?
The UN will be holding another World Conference Against Racism in 2009, with a new administration representing the U.S. It is crucial that President-elect Obama continue the Bush administration’s opposition — even if unpopular — to the OIC blasphemy resolution and other attempts by the UN to threaten freedom in the name of political correctness. America’s free speech tradition is not a partisan issue, nor should it be a point of negotiation with the international community. Free discourse represents an uncompromising American principle, and the world would be a better place if all nations shared it. That, however, would probably be asking too much. That Congress should quickly pass legislation guaranteeing the rights of all Americans to speak freely without fear of international harassment is not.