U.S. Attorneys, Activists, and Journalists Convene to Defend Free Speech in Washington D.C. Today

United in their commitment to defense of free speech against the threat of harassment by radical Islamists, speakers at today’s “Islamist Lawfare” conference, hosted in Washington D.C. by Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, debated what precisely constitutes the radical Islamist threat in the U.S. and how best to combat it.

In Europe and now in the U.S. Muslim extremists are using the legal system in order to harass and intimidate journalists, academics, and others from being critical of Islam or from doing investigative journalism related to terrorism, according to Brooke Goldstein, director of The Legal Project for the Middle East Forum. Goldstein, who introduced the conference’s morning panel, drew a distinction between what she characterized as two arms of the global, radical Islamist movement: the violent arm and the legal arm. Describing the violent form of the movement as physical attacks like the murder, several years ago in the Netherlands, of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for his criticism of Islam, she went on to describe what she and other critics characterize as the “lawful arm” of global jihad: “hiring lawyers with the intent to muzzle their critics.”

A focus of the panel discussion was “libel tourism,” or efforts by foreign nationals and governments to prosecute American writers for libel under more conservative speech laws of other countries like Great Britain, where the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the plaintiff, in a libel suit.

An example cited during the conference was that of Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It,” who was prosecuted for libel in England (although Ehrenfeld is an American writer and only 23 copies of her book sold in England via Amazon.com, a British court entered a default judgment against her when she failed to appear for trial.) Ehrenfeld’s efforts to argue that the contents of her book did not create liability under U.S. law resulted in the passage, in New York state, of the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act,” signed into law by Gov. David Paterson last year.

Lawmakers are now arguing for the passage of a federal law to further protect American journalists, researchers, and academics from what they view as harassment lawsuits on the part of Islamists designed to stifle investigations of terrorism and discussion and critique of Islamic extremism.

Senator Arlen Spector (D-Pa), who canceled his plan to appear at the conference, is co-sponsoring legislation, the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009, to extend the scope of New York state’s protection of American writers against “libel tourism.”

Speakers at the morning panel of the conference, which focused on ways to combat Islamists’ efforts to use the legal system to silence critics of radical Islam, included Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University; Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy in the Reagan White House; Andrew McCarthy, senior fellow at National Review Institute and former assistant U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York (where he led the successful prosecution against Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 others connected with the first World Trade Center bombing), James Taranto, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and John J.Walsh, senior counsel at Carter Ledyard & Milburn, a specialist in media and First Amendment law.

More from the conference to come.

This entry was written by and posted on May 19, 2009 at 9:24 pm and filed under Blog.