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What is Libel Tourism?

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  • Written By: Toni Henthorn
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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Generally, libel refers to false, written, posted, or broadcast communication that is defamatory toward a person, group, company, or government. The anti-defamation laws in some countries, such as England and Wales, favor the plaintiff's case more than the laws in the United States (US). This has led to libel tourism, in which plaintiffs in libel cases opt to bring their suits overseas in order to increase their chances of a favorable outcome. Foreign judgments in cases of libel tourism raise concerns about potential infringement on the rights of US citizens to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In response to such concerns, both the US Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act in 2010, which limits the enforcement of foreign libel judgments in those cases that do not violate US libel laws.

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Critics have blamed English defamation law for the wave of libel tourism. According to English law, courts presume that all defamatory statements alleged to be libelous are false unless the defendant in such a case proves it to be true. If the defendant cannot prove the truth of the statement, he can argue that the statement is a fair comment, reflecting a reasonable viewpoint given the known facts. As a defense, however, this can be difficult to establish. This has resulted in a three-fold increase in the number of libel suits filed in England, many of which pertain to accusations of aiding, funding, or abetting terrorism.

Some libel tourism cases in England have attracted the scrutiny of the US courts and legislatures. One such case involved allegations of terror financing by Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz. The allegations were part of a 2003 book, Funding Evil, by US citizen Rachel Ehrenfeld. Mahfouz filed an successful anti-defamation action in England against Ehrenfeld. Although Ehrenfeld maintained that her book was protected by the First Amendment, the English court forced ruled against her and forced her to pay Mahfouz damages.

Although some US citizens, such as actress Kate Hudson, have benefited from libel tourism, the practice in many cases has been used to silence the criticism of US journalists, writers, and broadcast personnel. Even postings on the Internet by bloggers have been vulnerable to suits filed overseas. The SPEECH Act not only prohibits the enforcement of libel judgments that violate US law, but it also allows a US citizen who is a defendant in such a case to sue the plaintiff for attempting to deprive him of his constitutional right to free speech. This act provides for the recovery of damages in US court.

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