Leading article: A bad week for free speech

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The Independent Online

How could it have come to this? We live in a country where respect for free speech and the written word is centuries old, yet legislators in other countries feel they must pass laws protecting their citizens' liberties against British judges. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a law giving legislators the power to block libel judgments passed in the British courts. Three other American states have similar laws, all prompted by a judgment against the US author Rachel Ehrenfeld.

In her 2003 book Funding Evil, Dr Ehrenfeld accused a Saudi banker of providing financial support for al-Qa'ida and Hamas. Dr Ehrenfeld's book was not published in Britain, but about 20 copies were bought online through UK-registered websites, and some content was available online. On that flimsy basis, the aggrieved banker cleverly chose to sue Dr Ehrenfeld in London, where his case was heard by our most eminent libel judge, David Eady, who ordered the writer to pay £30,000 damages to the banker and his two sons, plus costs.

This is the most notorious example of London's global reputation as haven for "libel tourism", though arguably not the most absurd. One of the richest men in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, lined up some of Britain's most expensive libel lawyers against two of his country's media organisations. One was a website published only in Ukrainian, which was ordered to pay £50,000 damages.

Governor Schwarzenegger's humiliating conclusion that British courts cannot be trusted to protect free speech coincides with the scandal surrounding the granting of a "super injunction" to the oil trading firm, Trafigura, which its lawyers, Carter-Ruck, interpreted as applicable even to the proceedings of Parliament. Fortunately, the Commons showed more regard for free speech than the courts, and Carter-Ruck backed down.

That was a small victory; the bigger one has yet to come. Parliament must legislate to end the pernicious phenomenon of libel tourism. That means rebalancing the libel laws, which are scandalously weighted in favour of wealthy litigants. The rich, of course, have a right to protect their reputations, but not at the cost of stifling free expression and bringing British justice into disrepute.