A Fight to Protect Americans From British Libel Law

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The American Civil Liberties Union may not often see eye to eye with the American Center for Democracy, a research group with neoconservative credentials. But the two organizations are united on at least one thing: their distaste for British libel laws, which they say are being exploited to suppress free speech in Britain and beyond.

British courts have always been friendlier to libel claimants than their American counterparts. Until recently that did not matter much to American authors or publishers. But now the Internet makes anything published in the United States almost immediately available in Britain, too.

Some free-speech advocates in the United States say that so-called libel tourists — people with little connection to Britain — are using the global-distribution argument to justify suing for libel there.

London has gained a reputation as the libel capital of the world. Saudi businessmen have sued there to complain about American reports that they engaged in terrorist financing; Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs have sued in Britain over accusations of unsavory business activities; and Hollywood celebrities have gone to London to seek redress over reports of wayward kisses.

To try to insulate American authors and publishers, groups like the A.C.L.U. and the Center for Democracy have persuaded lawmakers in New York and Illinois to pass state laws that block enforcement of British libel decisions in the United States. Similar bills are advancing in other state legislatures, and stronger measures, allowing American defendants to fight back against adverse foreign libel rulings, have been proposed in the United States Congress.

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