Editor Accused of Libel Wins in Paris Court: Victory for Academic Freedom

Ashley Thorne

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Joseph H.H. Weiler, who was accused of libel for publishing a book review unfavorable to the book’s author, Karin Calvo-Goller, has been cleared of charges by a Paris court.

Calvo-Goller brought a lawsuit against Weiler, the editor-in-chief of the European Journal of International Law, after it ran a short review by Thomas Weigend of her book The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court. One sentence from Weigend’s review says, “Karin Calvo-Goller has undoubtedly invested much time and effort into this book, which – but for regrettably sloppy editing – might well serve as a first systematic introduction to the procedural issues confronting the ICC.

When Calvo-Goller complained to Weiler, he offered her space to respond, but she refused and demanded instead that the review be removed from the journal. NAS president Peter Wood, who wrote a letter last year expressing his dismay over the case, spoke from his experience as the editor of a journal that often publishes book reviews: “In my thirty-year career as a scholar, librarian, university director of scholarly publications, and editor of five academic journals, I have never previously encountered such a demand or any instance in which a book review was withdrawn after publication. Dr. Calvo-Goller’s demand in this case is unreasonable and unwarranted.” Professor Weiler, a faculty member at NYU, wrote on his blog, “Since I did not consider the Review libelous its removal in my view would have seriously compromised academic freedom and the intellectual integrity of EJIL and book reviewing generally.”

So it turned out that a French court put an American editor on trial over a German book review that offended an Israeli scholar. Dr. Wood said the greatest concern in the case was that it had ended up in court when it belongs to the realm of academic freedom. Yesterday’s decision confirmed the inappropriateness of the accusation as a lawsuit. According to the Chronicle:

In the ruling, the court said the review expressed a scientific opinion of the book and did not go beyond the kind of criticism to which all authors of intellectual work subject themselves when they publish. It agreed with Mr. Weiler's contention that the case did not properly fall within its jurisdiction anyway. It concluded that Ms. Calvo-Goller had engaged in forum shopping and had shown bad faith in bringing the complaint. It said it was ordering the plaintiff to pay the €8,000 to Mr. Weiler in reparation for the harm caused by the improper nature of her action.

This is a victory for academic freedom. Had the decision gone the other way, it would have had a serious chilling effect on the freedom to critique arguments on their merits. Such freedom is the lifeblood of reasoned scholarship. As Dr. Wood wrote, “The progress of ideas is utterly dependent on the existence of intellectual freedom, unfettered debate, and robust exchange of ideas.” The court ruled rightly, and its judgment should serve as a positive precedent for future aggrieved authors. If they feel they have been misrepresented, they should go through the normal procedures provided by the journal for rebuttal, rather than sue the editor via libel tourism. 

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