FREE SPEECH — You can holiday in Thailand for affordable cosmetic surgery, move to Grenada to enroll in an accessible medical school, or visit England to sue someone back here for libel and probably win, without having to overcome his pesky American speech rights. It's called libel tourism, and a bill to protect Californians from it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week 5-0 and awaits action on the Senate Floor.
SB 320 by Senator Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) would allow a California court to decline to enforce a foreign court's money judgment in a libel or slander case if the foreign court system in which the judgment was obstained lacked the free speech and press protections of the U.S. and California Constitutions. As explained in the committee analysis of the bill,
In response to cases involving defamation judgments obtained in foreign countries considered to be "libel-friendly" such as the United Kingdom, the New York Legislature last year enacted protective legislation to create hurdles for the enforcement of such judgments against defendants who reside in the United States or who have assets in that state that could be subject to enforcement of the defamation judgments. In particular, the California Newspaper Publishers Association cites the case of Rachel Ehrenfeld (an Israeli-born writer living in the United States), who was sued by billionaire Saudi entrepreneur Khalid Salim bin Mahfouz in London for her book, Funding Evil, that accused Bin Mahfouz of financing Islamic terrorist groups. Ehrenfeld's book was not published in London, but Bin Mahfouz was able to establish jurisdiction because 23 copies of the book were purchased there online. Ehrenfeld decided not to submit to the court's jurisdiction, and Bin Mahfouz obtained a $225,000 default judgment against her. Ehrenfeld contended in an interview that the judgment not only affected her, but also publishers who are now "afraid to mention any Saudi financier of terrorism, even if the evidence is there. The intimidation factor has worked well to silence the media."
Patterned after (a) New York law, SB 320 is intended to ensure that a foreign-country judgment based on defamation or libel is recognized by a California court only when the laws applied by the foreign court where the judgment was obtained provide similar protections to freedom of speech and the press as are provided under the California and U.S. Constitutions.