I've been meaning to blog about good news on the free speech front: Congress passed, and President Obama signed, a fairly strong libel tourism bill.
The bill, called the SPEECH Act, limits recognition of foreign judgments. It prohibits any federal or state court from recognizing or enforcing a foreign judgment for defamation unless (1) the judgment creditor can prove that the foreign court offers equivalent protections for free speech as the defendant would have enjoyed in United States courts under the First Amendment, or (2) the judgment creditor can prove he or she would have prevailed even under the stricter standards in the United States. In addition, the SPEECH act provides that foreign libel judgments are unenforceable to the extent they are inconsistent with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides that people who run web sites are not liable for the content of comments left by visitors. Better yet, if a foreign judgment creditor tries to enforce a judgment here and the defendant resists it successfully on First Amendment grounds under the Speech Act, the defendant gets attorney fees and costs. Moreover, a domestic defendant faced with a foreign judgment can bring an action in federal court seeking a declaration that the foreign judgment is unenforceable.
In short, the Speech Act is an effective shield to prevent libel tourists from enforcing shitty foreign defamation laws against Americans. Hence countries that have terrible, censorious libel laws that encourage libel tourism, or have ambitions to police the internet by allowing foreign suits for things written on web sites hosted in the United States, will be thwarted — they'll be left with a useless foreign judgment unenforceable against people in the United States.
Why is this important?
Years ago techdirt ran a blog post asking whether a company called Jeftel was a front for spammers. The post was long forgotten, and its untended comments ran to spam, cut-and-pasted Bible quotes, inanities, and squabbling. Standard internet stuff, in other words. Years later, a commenter suggested that the owner of the company offered preferential treatment to employees who shared his Jewish heritage. [Review the thread and judge the evidence on the spamming issue yourself; as to the anonymous commenter's assertion, it's obviously foolish and credulous to believe such things because an anonymous commenter says them.]
This drew an extraordinarily bumptious demand letter from a British lawyer, Brian Addlestone of Addlestone Keane in Leeds. Techdirt posts the letter, and I've saved it here as an artifact of extraordinary assholery. Addlestone threatens suit in the United Kingdom, claims that the accusations of spamming are untrue, and complains that the comment about preferential treatment is anti-semitic [sic]. Addlestone, in a flurry of self-important aggression, demands that techdirt shut its site down (not just take the post down, but take the entire site down) or Addlestone will get a British court to do it for him, and give him damages as well. Addlestone explains that he can get a British court to give him a judgment and then enforce it in the United States. So SHUT TECHDIRT DOWN. Or I'll ask again!
Thanks to the SPEECH Act, Addlestone's foolish threats are impotent. Even if he gets some pseudo-court in England to issue an injunction and damages award under the United Kingdom's loathsome defamation law, he'll never enforce it here. It will be, like Addlestone's diploma, an expensive but ultimately pointless scrap of paper. A United States court will never enforce an injunction taking down an entire web site on the theory that a post was defamatory. A United States court will never enforce a defamation judgment premised on a statement by a commenter; that would violate Section 230.
A cautious lawyer, before sending such a strident threat, might have checked first to see if there had been any recent developments in the law governing perfection of foreign judgments, particularly because prior versions of the SPEECH Act have been floating about, well publicized, for some time.
I hope Addlestone's client didn't pay him too much. Remember, kids: however inane your demand, you can always find a lawyer to utter it for you.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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