February 25, 2013

ALA joins protest of SLAPP lawsuit brought by publisher against librarian


Ever since the news came out that Edwin Mellen Press was suing librarian Dale Askey and his current employer, McMaster University in Ontario, over a blog post criticizing the press that Askey wrote two years ago (when he was working not for McMaster, but for his previous employer, Kansas State University), debate has run high on library blogs, higher education websites, and other forums. Library Journal’s Annoyed Librarian weighed in with his/her’s usual tart-tongued assessment (“If you don’t mind a little advice, and I get the feeling you probably do but I’m going to give it anyway, drop the suit.”); a petition has been started on Change.org; and various parties, including major library associations in the US and Canada, have come out publicly in support of Askey, with most calling Mellen’s case a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

Now the American Library Association has added their statement to the fray. From ALA President Maureen Sullivan:

As president of the American Library Association, I share the deep concern expressed by the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries and the Canadian Library Association among many others in deploring the actions of the Edwin Mellen Press in filing a libel suit against Dale Askey, currently a librarian at McMaster University, for expressions of his professional opinion on his personal blog not associated with either Kansas State University or McMaster University.

This action strikes at a core responsibility of all librarians as information professionals to provide considered, critical advice to the reading public regardless of the type of library in which they are employed.

In addition, it has the potential to significantly poison the good relationships enjoyed by the library and publishing communities. I call upon the Press to reconsider its actions and drop this assault on intellectual and academic freedom.

Edwin Mellen Press has a history of conspicuously non-classy behavior. As Jake New writes in a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog:

The publisher once sued Lingua Franca for libel when, in a 1993 article, the now-defunct magazine criticized the company. Edwin Mellen did not win, but it did later publish a book about the lawsuit, which can be purchased for $119.95.

Mellen appears to be known in the library community for the high prices and uneven scholarship of their books—and I say this not as a librarian with years of experience in evaluating scholarly presses, as Askey was, but as a reader of the posts and comments following the announcement of the suit, which almost universally come down on Askey’s side, both for reasons of intellectual freedom and based on the bloggers’ and commenters’ personal experience with the press.

You can also go to their website and judge for yourself: for instance, their “Steps in Publishing with Mellen” tab takes you to a page actually titled “Selectivity in Book Publishing” in which Mellen Press talks about itself in the third person a lot (producing an oddly Gollum-like effect), while saying paradoxical things like “The first decision of the press does not depend on reading a manuscript” and “The beginning of the selection process is not the publisher’s deciding whether to accept or reject a particular book proposal.” Or their “About” page which contains milestones in the press’s history like this one:

1985: Africa goes bankrupt and The Edwin Mellen Press is the only scholarly publisher to continue publishing books in African Studies. This has today made Mellen the largest publisher of non-white scholars of any academic press in North America.

Really? What does this even mean? That Africa (the country) was bankrolling African Studies academic publishing for years until the mysteriously significant year of 1985? Maybe there’s something I don’t know about the history of African Studies (was there a press called “Africa” that went bankrupt in 1985?) but it does seem like it would have to be only the most forgiving and unworldly of librarians, or the most desperate of academics, who wouldn’t be skeptical about this operation.

But what’s particularly interesting about the lawsuit in terms of the boundaries of liability is that Mellen is claiming that not only is Askey and McMaster responsible for the blogpost that Askey wrote, but also for the comments other people made to the post. From the Wired Campus post:

The press also asserts that the defendants are liable for statements made by others in the comments section of the blog post, including one scholar’s claim that Edwin Mellen officials “practically enslave their authors to a contract that NO ONE should ever sign.”

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said that while it may seem odd that someone can be sued for statements they didn’t even make, user comments are “not a completely clear area of law.”

“The more monitored user comments are, the more I may be liable for it,” Mr. Turk said. “If I leave up comments that have been asked to be taken down, then I can be sued, and probably successfully.”

So, a librarian who wrote critically about a press, the user comments he didn’t write, and the university he didn’t work for at the time are all on the hook for over $4 million? Disturbing territory indeed.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.