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Paton bill aims to protect Arizonans from libel tourism

Dr. Zuhdi Jasser isn’t reluctant to speak his mind about oil barons he believes to be financiers of terrorism. He does so through the group he founded, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and its Web site.

“This is the head of the spear,” Jasser said. “This is the intellectual war of ideas against those that want to deny debate, elevate theology and cut us off at the knees.”

While Jasser makes these statements from Phoenix, he said one person he criticized, a resident of a Middle Eastern nation, threatened him with a libel suit in Britain, where laws are more favorable to plaintiffs than in the U.S.

“It’s nerve-racking because we’re not a billion-dollar nonprofit,” said Jasser, who practices internal medicine and nuclear cardiology in Phoenix.

Experts call such cases libel tourism, where parties use the Internet’s reach to file suits against U.S. residents in countries, not necessarily their own, where defamation laws give them a better chance of prevailing.

A state lawmaker has introduced legislation aimed at protecting Arizona residents against the practice. S1268, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican, would prohibit state courts from recognizing libel judgments of foreign courts lesser protections for freedom of speech and the press than the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.

“The United States is the gold standard for freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” Paton said. “I don’t think we should be trying to abridge that freedom.”

David Bodney, a media attorney with the Phoenix law firm Steptoe and Johnson LLP, called libel tourism a threat to free speech. He spoke in support of the bill on behalf of Phoenix Newspapers Inc. when it went before the Senate Judiciary Committee recently.

“If someone here feels that someone in London is supporting terrorism, they might be considerably less likely to speak out if they know that some Saudi billionaire is prepared to sue them for defamation,” Bodney said. “I think legislation like this is hugely important, particularly as more people are communicating routinely on Web sites via the Internet.”

New York, California, Illinois and Florida have passed similar legislation. Congress is currently considering a similar measure, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009.

Arizona lawmakers have introduced two other bills on the subject. Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, proposes the same restrictions on libel tourism but goes a step further by saying Arizona courts shouldn’t consider any precedents set by foreign courts when rendering their decisions. Another, introduced by Rep. Carl Seel, a Phoenix Republican, proposes that judges not consider foreign judgments of any kind and those who do should face impeachment.

Joseph Russomanno, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Paton’s bill has the potential to make an impact.

“The nice thing about a provision like this is that it’s in place to protect the people who get put in this situation,” said Russomanno, who specializes in mass communication law.

Kevin R. Kemper, a University of Arizona assistant professor of journalism who teaches press law, said controlling libel tourism would help the many Arizonans who share their opinions online. But he said the bill’s language on comparing U.S. freedoms to those of other countries could inadvertently lead to state courts enforcing some foreign judgments on press matters when the other countries involved meet the legislation’s standards.

“I just wish we wouldn’t allow them period,” he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed Paton’s bill, and the measure was awaiting consideration by the full Senate.

Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Phoenix Democrat, the only committee member to vote against the bill, said many foreign libel laws, especially those in Britain, rightfully protect plaintiffs from being slandered in print and shouldn’t be ignored.

“I don’t think we should fear other countries, or other cultures, or their viewpoints or how their courts reason,” Cheuvront said in committee. “We should look at it as inspiration.”

Jasser, who addressed the committee, declined to identify the person threatening to sue him, saying that person made confidentiality a condition of not filing suit. But he said it was someone wealthy and from the Middle East.

“I am willing to accept standards of freedom of speech in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Jasser said. “But I’m not willing to hold myself accountable to standards of freedom of speech in London, the Emirates or Saudi Arabia.”

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