Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Review Libel?

As somebody who writes the occasional book review, my attention was caught be the article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, "Libel Case, Prompted by Academic Book Review, Has Scholars Worried."(subscription required). Me too, maybe. Author of the book reviewed, Karin N. Calvo-Goller, a lawyer and senior lecturer at the Academic Center of Law & Business, a college in Israel, sued the editor of the journal that carried the review, Joseph H.H. Weiler, editor of the European Journal of International Law for criminal libel in French court. Mr. Weiler is a professor of law at New York University. Speculation is that the suit was set in France rather than the United States, where the journal is published, or Israel, where the plaintiff lives, because the European Union's rules on freedom of expression are not as expansive. But this is entirely speculation, because Ms. Calvo-Goller has not responded to requests for comment, nor made any public comments. Here is a snippet from the article, by Jennifer Howard:

If you're an author confronted with a negative book review, you have several options. You can write an angry letter to the editor. You can complain to friends and family about the reviewer's lack of discernment. You can decide that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all and let the book speak for itself (often the wisest course, in my experience as a book-review editor).

What you don't do is sue the editor of the newspaper or journal that published the review. (snip)

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.
Here is a link to the review that caused the suit. It is not a review I would like to receive, but as the article says in the Chronicle, there have, indeed, been worse. And the author of the article concludes that Calvo-Goller has done herself a great deal of harm in the court of public opinion among the world of academics who are generally pretty taken aback at the choice she has made. It is never clear how court cases will come out. The Chronicle reporter spoke with a French lawyer who tries this type of case, who gave a very typical lawyerly answer: it depends.
I asked Fran├žois H. Briard, a lawyer who tries cases in France's Supreme Court, to give me a sense of how the French legal system treats such cases. "Usually there is no libel between academics," Mr. Briard told me via e-mail, "unless there is true insult." But "the courts are quite protective of honor and reputation. If real harm is done, I mean quite a high level of bad appreciation [negative comment] on the person, the only way for the writer not to be convicted is to plead 1) I did this with entire good faith, for example relying on public facts or wrong information; 2) the appreciation made relies on true facts."

The journal editors I spoke with were optimistic that the case will be dismissed once a judge reviews the facts. But Ms. Damrosch pointed out that whatever the outcome, Mr. Weiler still faces the financial and psychological wear and tear of a court proceeding—not a pleasant prospect.

In the court of scholarly opinion, at least, Ms. Calvo-Goller appears to be losing. Scholars in the blogosphere have been weighing in on Mr. Weiler's side. "The author has obviously done more damage to her own reputation by making this criminal complaint than would have been possible by any book review, let alone the one in question," Brian Leiter wrote on his popular blog, Leiter Reports, in February. He is a professor of law and director of the center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago.

What does Mr. Weigend, the author of the review at stake, make of all this? He seems as taken aback as anyone, saying he cannot add much to what Mr. Weiler has already made public. "In particular, I have never had any personal connection whatsoever to Ms. Calvo-Goller," Mr. Weigend told me via e-mail. "I have been much surprised by the legal action she has brought in France and have no idea what the possible outcome may be."
The case at least gives me the collywobbles.

1 comment:

dan said...

there is an UPDATE today by Jennifer Howard on the CHE site. go look. it gives Calvo Goller's side of the story.