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‘Libel tourism’ assaults free speech

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In the debate over Intelligent Design, William Dembski is wary of a new trend dubbed “libel tourism” that may force Americans to submit to lawsuits in other countries for alleged crimes that otherwise would be protected by the First Amendment.

Dembski, research professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted on his blog the case of Paul L. Williams, a Pennsylvania-based journalist and National Book Award-winning author who is facing trial in Canada because of a loophole in free trade agreements.

Such agreements, including NAFTA, give foreign entities the right to take action against American citizens, Williams said. He is being sued for revealing potential terrorist threats from al-Qaida affiliates at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in his 2006 book, “The Dunces of Doomsday.”

Williams contends that McMaster University has harbored leading al-Qaida operatives, including one who has been described by the U.S. Justice Department as “the next Mohammad Atta” and has been commissioned to lead the next attack on U.S. soil.

McMaster, with a prominent engineering school, houses a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor, one of the largest reactors for educational purposes in the western hemisphere, Williams said.

When the operatives left McMaster, 180 pounds of nuclear material was reported missing, though the university claimed no material was missing from the reactor but radiological material was missing from pharmacological and medical facilities, Williams said.

He drew several other documented links to McMaster and terrorism, but the university sued him for libel and demanded $4 million in punitive and aggregated damages.

“Unlike American libel laws where the plaintiff must prove that what was said about him is not true and it was said in malice, Canadian libel laws, like the British, put the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiff,” Williams wrote in an opinion piece.

Though he wrote the book from his home in Pennsylvania, Williams must stand trial in Toronto next spring.

“This ordeal has damaged my professional career, depleted my life savings, and placed me in financial jeopardy,” Williams wrote. “I am not alone.”

Joe Sharkey, a New Jersey-based writer often carried by The New York Times, reported on the aftermath of a plane crash he survived over the Amazon, and a woman in Brazil sued him for libel for offending the dignity of Brazil by criticizing its air traffic control. The woman is demanding $500,000 and apologies in national and international media outlets.

Rachel Ehrenfeld, founder and director of the American Center for Democracy, also has been a libel tourism victim. In 2005, a Saudi billionaire sued her for libel in London because in a heavily researched book she alleged that he funded al-Qaida. She was ordered to pay more than $250,000 and destroy the book.

Dembski, at Southwestern Seminary, said this trend is relevant to Intelligent Design, the view that certain patterns in the universe and in biological systems are best explained as the product of intelligent agency, instead of as the product of unguided material forces such as chance variations and natural selection.

“In the past, American Constitutional safeguards on free speech seemed to me sufficient to allow ID to win the day provided it could prove its case. Of that I’m no longer so sure …,” Dembski wrote on his blog Oct. 16.

“It’s not hard to imagine that ID, because it may be construed as implying that humans were intended to operate within certain constraints, might be seen as challenging certain lifestyles and thus as constituting a ‘hate crime.’

“… [C]ritics intent on shutting ID down may do so by challenging its right to fall under free speech. And if Constitutional safeguards stand in the way of this challenge, it may be possible to leapfrog the U.S. Constitution and have courts outside the U.S. attempt to shut the discussion down. It’s for this reason that I bring to your attention the case of Paul Williams and see his plight as one we may face down the road,” Dembski wrote.

As a remedy to the libel tourism trend, Williams, Ehrenfeld and others are advocating the passage of the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, which was introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter, D.-Pa., to protect American writers and publishers from foreign libel judgments rendered in countries lacking America’s free speech protections.

The bill, though, is stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Robert Spencer, whose column on the subject appeared on the news and opinion site canadafreepress.com Oct. 9, said the bill faces an uphill battle.

“It seems unlikely that Barack Obama will give it his support after he just last week had the United States cosponsor an anti-free speech resolution at the United Nations,” Spencer wrote. “Approved by the U.N. Human Rights Council, the resolution, cosponsored by the U.S. and Egypt, calls on states to condemn and criminalize ‘any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.’

“‘Hatred’ and ‘incitement’ are, of course, in the eye of the beholder — or more precisely, in the eye of those who make such determinations. The powerful can decide to silence the powerless by classifying their views as ‘hate speech,'” Spencer wrote.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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