The Legal Project
"[Those] who won our independence believed ... the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies." — Justice Brandeis
 
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About the Legal Project

The Middle East Forum has established the Legal Project to protect researchers and analysts who work on the topics of terrorism, terrorist funding, and radical Islam from lawsuits designed to silence their exercise of free speech.

Background

Researchers and analysts have been repeatedly targeted in legal actions, including these lawsuits:

  • Khalid bin Mahfouz vs. Rachel Ehrenfeld: Ehrenfeld wrote that Bin Mahfouz had financial links to Al-Qaeda and Hamas. He sued her in January 2004 in a plaintiff-friendly British court. He won by default, and was awarded £30,000 and an apology.

  • Iqbal Unus vs. Rita Katz: His house searched in the course of a U.S. government operation, code-named Green Quest, Unus in March 2004 sued Katz, a non-governmental counterterrorist expert, on the grounds that she was responsible for the raid. Unus lost and had to pay Katz's court costs.

  • Council on American-Islamic Relations vs. Andrew Whitehead of Anti-CAIR. CAIR claimed in March 2004 that Whitehead's statements on his website were false, libelous, and "impute the commission of a criminal offense," all of which caused injury to CAIR's "standing and reputation." Two years later, CAIR withdrew the lawsuit.

  • Islamic Society of Boston vs. 17 critics, including the David Project and Steven Emerson. ISB initiated the lawsuit in May 2005, accusing them of defamation and of conspiring to violate the ISB's civil rights through "a concerted, well-coordinated effort to deprive the Plaintiffs … of their basic rights of free association and the free exercise of religion." Two years later, it withdrew the lawsuit.

Such lawsuits are often predatory, filed without a serious expectation of winning, but undertaken as a means to bankrupt, distract, intimidate, and demoralize defendants. Plaintiffs seek less to prevail in the courtroom than to wear down researchers and analysts. Even when the latter win cases, they pay heavily in time, money, and spirit. As counterterrorism specialist Steven Emerson comments, "Legal action has become a mainstay of radical Islamist organizations seeking to intimidate and silence their critics." Islamists clearly hope, Douglas Farah notes, that researchers will "get tired of the cost and the hassle [of lawsuits] and simply shut up."

The Threat

We therefore must expect that Islamists will engage in future legal efforts along these lines. Indeed, the Islamic Society of North America and Muslim Public Affairs Council have publicly stated that they are considering filing defamation lawsuits against critics.

More specifically, the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced in October 2005 the ambitious fundraising goal of raising $1 million in one month, in part to "defend against defamatory attacks on Muslims and Islam." Shortly after, one of its staffers, Rabiah Ahmed, stated that lawsuits are increasingly an "instrument" for it to use. "The Muslim community realizes that it has to respond to these allegations and to these attacks, otherwise, the people who are promoting these defamatory remarks will win in the court of public opinion." CAIR chairman Parvez Ahmed has stated that "People who make statements connecting CAIR to terrorism should understand the legal consequences of their attempted slander and defamation. The First Amendment does not protect defamation." (However, Federal prosecutors have since made this same connection.)

The Larger Picture

The Islamist movement has two wings, one violent and one lawful, which operate apart but often reinforce each other. This was on display in August 2006, when the Heathrow airport plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic Ocean provided an opening for Britain's Islamist establishment to press for changes in Middle East policy.

A similar one-two punch works to stifle the free discussion of Muhammad, the Koran, Islam, and Muslims. Eruptions against The Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons, and Pope Benedict, which caused hundreds of deaths, effectively complement lawsuits such as the ISB's. Emerson correctly notes (in reply to the Muslim Public Affairs Council threatening a lawsuit against him for making "false statements") that "Legal action has become a mainstay of radical Islamist organizations seeking to intimidate and silence their critics."

The Legal Project

The Legal Project works in four distinct ways to counter the Islamist threat

1) Fundraising for an Escrow account to supplement the court costs and litigation fees for victims of Islamist lawfare - all funds raised go directly to lawfare victims,
2) Arranging for pro bono and reduced rate counsel for victims of Islamist lawfare,
3) Maintaining an international network of attorneys dedicated to working pro bono in the defense of free speech and,
4) Raising awareness about the issue. Efforts include briefings by legal experts on how to avoid libelous statements, and consultations with libel lawyers before publishing on certain topics.

Geert Wilders Lauds Legal Project

"Last June, I was acquitted of all charges by an Amsterdam court. The Middle East Forum's Legal Project ... was always there to help, advise and assist ... The importance of the MEF's Legal Project in reclaiming free expression and political discourse ... cannot be overestimated."

Geert Wilders, September 29, 2011

Read the full text of Wilders' statement

© 2014 The Middle East Forum.