New York Daily News - New York,NY,USA
By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Thursday, October 8th 2009, 4:00 AM
Paul Williams has lived in Pennsylvania all his life. Yet with pretrial
proceedings that begin today, Canadian libel laws now threaten to ruin him
Williams is a National Book Award-winning writer whose 2006 éxposé, "The
Dunces of Doomsday," revealed potential terrorist threats to the United
States emanating from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Although the
book was published only in the U.S., he's being sued for libel in Canada by
the university, which is demanding an apology and $2 million in damages.
Williams is just the latest entry on an increasingly long list of victims of
"libel tourism" - a list that includes me. In this chilling assault on
American free speech, "libel tourists" use foreign laws and courts, which
lack America's robust First Amendment protections, to try to silence
American authors and force them into financial ruin.
Congress has the power to stop this dangerous tide, if it acts now.
Williams' reporting centered on the penetration of McMaster's College of
Engineering by alleged Al Qaeda operatives. When the suspected terrorists
left the school in 2004, 180 pounds of nuclear waste went missing. The U.S.
government issued a "be-on-the-lookout" order and posted a reward of $5
million for each suspect.
Yet for daring to write about the threat, Williams is now being sued across
the border. And Canadian libel laws are notoriously plaintiff-friendly.
The same is true in Brazil, where Joseph Sharkey, a New Jersey-based
freelance business columnist, is being sued for reporting about the
aftermath of a plane crash he survived over the Amazon. The plaintiff is a
woman who maintains Sharkey offended the "dignity" of Brazil by criticizing
its incompetent air-traffic control. She is demanding $500,000 and a series
of international apologies. Sharkey is likely to be convicted.
In 2005, Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz sued me for libel in London;
in a heavily researched book, I had alleged that he funded Al Qaeda. Mahfouz
was a one-man wrecking crew of Americans' free speech rights, who after 9/11
sued or threatened to sue dozens of American writers in plaintiff-friendly
English courts. When Mahfouz came after me, I refused to acknowledge the
British court, asserting my rights as a U.S. citizen. Nevertheless I was
rendered a judgment by default and ordered to pay Mahfouz more than $250,000
and destroy the book.
We must stop this assault on free speech.
Fortunately for Williams, Pennsylvania is represented by U.S. Sen. Arlen
Specter, who wrote and introduced the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009.
The bill would protect American writers and publishers from foreign libel
judgments rendered in countries lacking America's free speech protections.
New York was the first state to pass an anti-libel tourism law, with similar
laws following in Florida and Illinois. But these patchwork protections
don't do nearly enough. Congress needs to intervene.
Specter's bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Chuck
Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), is now idling in the Judiciary
Committee. President Obama should urge its immediate passage - before more
American journalists are silenced by foreign courts.
Ehrenfeld, author of "Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed - and How to
Stop It," is director of the American Center for Democracy.