Backing away

From September 2008, a New York Times editorial on libel tourism and Khalid bin Mahfouz’s lawsuit against Rachel Ehrenfeld.

When Rachel Ehrenfeld wrote “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It,” she assumed she would be protected by the First Amendment. She was, in the United States. But a wealthy Saudi businessman she accused in the book of being a funder of terrorism, Khalid bin Mahfouz, sued in Britain, where the libel laws are heavily weighted against journalists, and won a sizable amount of money.

The lawsuit is a case of what legal experts are calling “libel tourism.” Ms. Ehrenfeld is an American, and “Funding Evil” was never published in Britain. But at least 23 copies of the book were sold online, opening the door for the lawsuit. When Ms. Ehrenfeld decided not to defend the suit in Britain, Mr. bin Mahfouz won a default judgment and is now free to sue to collect in the United States.

And guess what that does. It makes other writers very cautious.

Most writers, particularly those who concern themselves with arcane subjects like terrorism financing, are not wealthy. The prospect of a deep-pocketed plaintiff coming after them in court can be frightening. Even if the lawsuit fails, the cost and effort involved in defending against it can be considerable.

The result is what lawyers call a “chilling effect” — authors and publishers may avoid taking on some subjects, or challenging powerful interests. That has already been happening in Britain. Craig Unger’s “House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties” was a best seller in the United States. But its British publisher canceled plans to publish the book, reportedly out of fear of being sued. (A smaller publisher later released it.)

Ms. Ehrenfeld says that even in the United States, writers and publishers have been backing away from books about terrorism financing — particularly about the Saudi connection — out of fear of being sued. It is hard to know if other books are not being written out of fear of lawsuits — that is the essence of the chilling effect.

Interesting, isn’t it, given that Saudi Arabia already gets Special Treatment because of that sticky black liquid they have so much of and because of their putative help in the world’s quarrel with jihadists. Combine that with fear of lawsuits and you get an untouchable theocracy that is hellish for women and foreign workers.


  1. captainahags says

    I believe, though I’m not sure, that there are now laws in the US that prevent libel tourism from coming here- essentially if it violates the first amendment, it is not valid. Link.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    We have two sensitive topics here: the Saudi relationship with terrorists, and the Saudi relationship with Bushes.

    Excuse me, I think I feel a syllogism coming on…

  3. permanentwiltingpoint says

    Until very recently, we had something similar on a smaller scale here in Germany: If you wanted to sue for copyright infringement, you could do that in any jurisdictionary district where your rights were supposedly hurt – in case of an issue on the internet, that meant every district with at least one connected computer. So suers had just to find a court with open ears (Hamburg was the notorious pilgrimage site) and voilà.

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