January 27, 2011

Editor sued for running a negative book review

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Bookslut points us to the blog of the European Journal of International Law, where New York University law professor Professor Joseph Weiler writes a column detailing what it’s like to find himself in the dock of a Paris courtroom, where he is currently appearing on a daily basis as a criminal defendant — for having run a negative book review on the EJIL’s website, which he edits.

“The setting could not have been grander,” Weiler writes of his arrival in court. “As I entered the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, the French Old Bailey, my lawyer whispered: ‘Emile Zola was tried here.’ Vive la difference: This was no Dreyfus Affair but the stakes for Academic Freedom and liberty of expression are huge.”

As an earlier story in Times Higher Education reports, Weiler is facing charges brought by Karin Calvo-Goller, senior lecturer at the Academic Centre of Law and Business in Israel, and author of The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court. After running a review of the book by Thomas Weigend, director of the Cologne Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law, and dean of the faculty of law at the University of Cologne, “Dr Calvo-Goller wrote to Professor Weiler alleging that it was defamatory and asking for it to be taken down,” says the THE report, because it could “cause harm to my professional reputation and academic promotion.” She even provided Weiler with a positive review to run in its place. Weiler told her “The heavy burden needed in my eyes to suppress a book review has not been met,” but offered her space to reply. She declined and pressed charges of “criminal libel” instead.

In Weiler’s piece on the EJIL, he says the location of the case tells you what you need to know:

Why Paris you might ask? Indeed. The author of the book was an Israeli academic. The book was in English. The publisher was Dutch. The reviewer was a distinguished German professor. The review was published on a New York website.

… Does the fact that the author of the book, it turned out, retained her French nationality before going to live and work in Israel make a difference? Libel tourism – libel terrorism to some — is typically associated with London, where notorious high legal fees and punitive damages coerce many to throw in the towel even before going to trial. Paris, as we would expect, is more egalitarian and less materialist. It is very plaintiff friendly.

But Weiler and his attorneys decided to fight both the charges and the idea of “forum shopping” — as he goes on,

The case was otiose for two reasons: It was in our view an egregious instance of ‘forum shopping,’ legalese for libel tourism. We wanted it thrown out. But if successful, the Court would never get to the merits –  and it was important to challenge this hugely dangerous attack on academic freedom and liberty of expression. Reversing custom, we specifically asked the Court not to examine our jurisdictional challenge as a preliminary matter but to join it to the case on the merits so that it would have the possibility to pronounce on both issues.

… On the merits, we steadfastly refused to engage the complainants challenges to the veracity of the critical statements made by the reviewer. The thrust of our argument was that absent bad faith and malice, so long as the review in question addressed the book and did not make false statement about the author such as plagiarism, it should be shielded from libel claims, let alone criminal libel. Sorting out of the truth should be left to academic discourse, even if academic discourse has its own biases and imperfections.

The verdict is due to be rendered on March 3rd.

Meanwhile, even if Calvo-Goller wins the case, will she get what she wants? As a comment at The Stresiand Effect notes, “What did Calvo-Goller do wrong in this situation?  Rather than covering up the fact she may or may not have written a credible ICC ‘Trial Proceedings’ book, she illuminated the fact that she may or may not have written a credible ICC ‘Trial Proceedings’ book.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives

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