Libel tourism: “The act of suing a writer for alleged defamation in a foreign jurisdiction where there are weak libel laws.” (Source: Dictionary.com).
Often, that jurisdiction is Great Britain, as NPR reporter Ari Shapiro noted in a March 21 report, “On Libel and the Law, the U.S. and U.K. Go Separate Ways.”
The hook for Shapiro’s story is Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s new documentary about the Church of Scientology, which will have its premiere March 29 on HBO. (Shapiro said the film aired “last week.” Maybe for critics, but the rest of us will have to wait.) The film is based on the book of the same title by Lawrence Wright; the book was published in the U.S. in 2013 (and was short-listed for a National Book Award), but has not yet been released in the U.K. There have also been “serious challenges” to the release of the film, Shapiro reports, “because Britain does not have the same free speech protections as the United States.”
The libel tourism coinage is credited to the British media lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who cited “the menace of libel tourism” in a 2010 opinion piece for The Guardian. The term had already been in circulation for at least a few years by then. It appeared in a January 2008 article by Doreen Carvajal in The New York Times about a Scandinavian case:
You’re an investment bank in Iceland with a complaint about a tabloid newspaper in Denmark that published critical articles in Danish. Whom do you call?
A pricey London libel lawyer.
That is called libel tourism by lawyers in the media trade. And Britain remains a comfortable destination for the rich in search of friendly courts, which have already weighed complaints from people who consider themselves unfairly tarred with labels like tax dodger, terrorist financier or murky Qaeda operative.
Russian oligarchs and Saudi billionaires have also found refuge in British libel law, Carvajal writes. Her succinct explanation:
Britain is a legal refuge because of defamation standards rooted in common law. They essentially assume that any offending speech is false and the writer or author must prove that it is in fact true to prevail against the charge.
In the United States, with its First Amendment protection for free speech, the situation tilts in the opposite direction: To succeed, libel plaintiffs must prove that the speech is false and published with a reckless disregard for the truth.
The expanded Dictionary.com entry brings us up to date:
After several high-profile libel suits filed in the U.K. against U.S. authors resulted in judgments against the authors—lawsuits that, in the opinion of many jurists, probably would not have held up in a U.S. court of law—Congress in 2010 passed the SPEECH (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage) Act. The title of the act speaks volumes: foreign libel judgments are no longer enforceable in the U.S. unless they meet the same high legal standards in libel matters as required by U.S. law, including that they do not violate the First Amendment right of free speech of an American author.Thus the tourist must return home.
SPEECH is a masterly example of the bureaucratic backronym.
Besides libel tourism, there are a few other examples of the “X tourism” formula.
Birth tourism, also known as maternity tourism, is travel to another country for the purpose of giving birth. Reasons for the practice, according to a Wikipedia entry, “include access to the destination country's healthcare system, circumvention of communist China's one-child policy and (in countries that recognize jus soli) birthright citizenship for the child.” According to a CBS News story published February 9, 2015, the number of Chinese women giving birth in the United States “more than doubled to about 10,000 in 2012.”
Medical tourism is travel to another country for health care, often for economic reasons. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has estimated that 750,000 U.S. residents travel abroad for medical care each year; a CNBC report put the 2013 figure at 900,000, and noted that the worldwide market is $20 billion to $40 billion. Websites such as MedicalTourism.com (“Your Passport to a World of Options”) and PatientsBeyondBorders.com (“The Most Trusted Resource in Medical Travel”) provide information and patient accounts; companies like Planet Hospital (“A New Way to Care”) handle the logistics.
A subset of medical tourism is surgery tourism, and a sub-subset is plastic surgery tourism, which New Yorker contributor Patricia Marx touches on in her “Letter from Seoul,” published in the March 23 issue. Her subtitle: “Why is South Korea the world’s plastic-surgery capital?” Her answer:
“Surgery tourists” from abroad make up about a third of the business in South Korea, and, of those, most come from China. One reason is that, throughout Asia, the “Korean wave” of pop culture (called hallyu) shapes not only what music you should listen to but what you should look like while listening to it. Cosmetic transformations can be so radical that some of the hospitals offer certificates of identity to foreign patients, who might need help convincing immigration officers that they’re not in the Witness Protection Program.
Some of the clinic names Marx spotted on her visit: Small Face, Magic Nose, Dr. 4 Nose, Her She, Before and After, Reborn, Top Class, Wannabe, 4 Ever, Cinderella, Center for Human Appearance, and April 31 Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Marx’s translator explained “Small Face” to her: “Koreans, and Asians in general, are self-conscious about having big heads,” he said. “This is why in group photos a girl will try to stand far in the back to make her face relatively smaller.” Also popular in South Korea: the “Bagel Girl” look—bagel being a portmanteau of “baby-faced” and “glamorous.”