Examiner Staff Writer 11/24/08
On Jan. 23, 2004, at 2:33 p.m., an e-mail popped up on my computer screen from the solicitors for Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz threatening to sue me in London for libel. My first thought was, “He found the wrong victim.” I then called my lawyer to find out how best I could fight back.
I was determined to prevent the Brits from robbing me of my free speech rights in America. After all, these rights were the result of the successful American fight against British oppression three centuries ago.
Having been raised by parents who, as members of the Irgun, fought the British occupation for Israel’s independence, I grew up understanding the core value of freedom. Thus, the U.S. constitutional protection of freedom of expression had a major role in my decision to live here.
At the time Mahfouz threatened to sue me in London, he already received many media outlets’ and writers’ retractions or apologies — most not U.K.-based. His frenzied use of the High Court in London to silence the media began in earnest after the 9/11 attacks on America.
As a defendant in lawsuits brought by families of the 9/11 victims and others against al Qaeda’s financiers, he tries to squash any information about his activities.
Mahfouz, who to date has never been tried on merit, boasts more than 40 (!) “victories” posted on his Web site. This effectively chilled further attempts to expose him because most writers and media outlets fear expensive lawsuits, especially where the laws are stacked against them, as they are in Britain.
Not surprisingly, Mahfouz, the former owner of the largest bank in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and banker to the Saudi royal family, did not like my report on his terrorist financing activities described in my book “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It.” The book was published in the U.S., where I live and work, and like all my writing, it was based on information from reliable sources, including official government and court documents.
I decided to challenge Mahfouz, not on his turf in Britain, where libel law and litigation costs favor him, but in New York, where my rights are better protected than anywhere else in the world.
Almost five difficult years later, my efforts to defend my free speech rights led to groundbreaking new statutes: New York’s Libel Terrorism Protection Act, dubbed by the media as “Rachel’s Law”; a similar law in Illinois; and the Free Speech Protection Act 2008, now pending before Congress.
At the outset, when I decided to challenge Mahfouz in New York, I received moral encouragement and commitments to cover my litigation costs. It did not take long, however, to find out that I could count on only a few who understood that U.S. national security and freedom of expression dictate greater and not lesser vigilance.
But the most common reactions were: “Are you out of your mind taking on a Saudi billionaire?”; “Why not just apologize like others have done?”; and incredibly: “Just settle with him!”
Such reactions reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations that Americans do not like to rock the boat. Most, I reckon, never lived in countries where free speech is not a sacred right, so they take their free speech rights for granted. Still, the majority is unaware that “libel tourism” — a crafty lawfare to inhibit this unique and precious freedom — is under way in Britain.
Coming from the Middle East and working all over the world, I know better: Where free speech is at stake, the boat must be rocked, if not toppled over altogether.
But fighting a Saudi billionaire is no picnic. The threats from his quarters were upsetting. And the silence from anti–terror organizations’ experts was baffling. Astonishingly, I was offered financial support not to challenge Mahfouz in the U.S., but to “change the British libel laws,” or to “challenge Mahfouz in London.”
But I had the support of my friends and the most prominent American free speech advocates and organizations on my side. Also, I was lucky to have an incredible attorney to whom I owe much gratitude and substantial unpaid legal fees.
I doubt Mahfouz expected a lone American woman to take him on and rock the free speech boat. The Saudi billionaire known as Britain’s ultimate “Libel Tourist” surely did not expect the frequent mention of his name and activities in the international media when he sued me in London.
Nor did he anticipate that his efforts to repress my free speech would spawn new laws to better protect Americans in precisely the “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” manner that the First Amendment was designed to protect and as the Free Speech Protection Act 2008 will reinforce, as soon as Congress passes it.
Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It,” is director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy.