Negative Book Review Prompts Libel Suit

This is troublesome. “Libel Case, Prompted by an Academic Book Review, Has Scholars Worried” via The Chronicle of Higher Education:

[I]t came as a shock to journal editors to learn that one of their own, Joseph H.H. Weiler, editor of the European Journal of International Law, would face a criminal-libel lawsuit in France over a review that he published on a Web site that he also edits, one that posts reviews of scholarly books.

Although the case, set for trial in June, is so unusual that it seems unlikely to set a precedent that would seriously dampen academic reviewers’ freedom of critique, that possibility still has editors worried. And it has left observers scratching their heads over why a scholar would choose to dispute a review in court and not in the usual arenas of academic debate.

First the details. The plaintiff is Karin N. Calvo-Goller, a lawyer and senior lecturer at the Academic Center of Law & Business, a college in Israel. The defendant, Mr. Weiler, is a professor of law at New York University. In addition to editing EJIL, he runs the Global Law Books Web site, which in spring 2006 published a short review of Ms. Calvo-Goller’s book The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court (Martinus Nijhoff). The reviewer was Thomas Weigend, a professor of law at the University of Cologne and director of the Cologne Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law.

Ms. Calvo-Goller has not made any public statements about the case, nor has she has responded to my requests for comment, so we have to rely on Mr. Weiler’s account of what happened.

In an editorial in the law journal, he reprints a long exchange of letters with Ms. Calvo-Goller, in which she asked him to remove Mr. Weigend’s review from the Web site. “The review is defamatory for my reputation, information contained in the review is false,” she wrote.

Mr. Weiler declined to remove the review, arguing that it was not libelous, and offering her the chance to write a comment that could be posted on the Web site alongside the review. She again asked him to take down the review; he again declined. In 2008 he received a subpoena to appear in court. (The exchange doesn’t explain why Ms. Calvo-Goller brought the suit in France, but she does note that the European Union’s standards of freedom of expression are not as broad as those in the United States.) Mr. Weigend, the reviewer, was not subpoenaed.

The review is still online, and though it’s critical (“her conceptual grasp of the ‘inquisitorial’ systems seems insufficient for a critical analysis that might go beneath the surface,” etc.) it’s short, informative, sternly academic, and not at all atypical of the types of reviews published by academic journals the world over.

Scholarly review is supposed to be rigorous; journals are meant to provide the after-publication review that sometimes chummy boards of review do not. It’s very sad to think of the chilling effect this kind of lawsuit could have on critical speech in the future — though, it’s telling that the charge has been issued in France, not the U.S. (where Weiler is based). Maybe we have some of our protections right, after all.

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