Libel Tourism En Vacances

Peter Wood

Editor's note: Today NAS President Peter Wood sent this letter to a website set up to coordinate support for an NYU professor who faces trial in June in a French court.  

To Whom It May Concern,

I write to express my alarm over the matter of Professor J.H.H. Weiler’s trial before the Paris Criminal Tribunal in June 2010.

I am the president of the National Association of Scholars and editor of the quarterly journal Academic Questions.  While I am not familiar with the details of French law, this case appears without merit and in fact, abusive of internationally accepted standards of intellectual and academic freedom. The action against Professor Weiler, which was originated by Dr. Karin Calvo-Goller, is a clear-cut instance of “libel tourism.”

Professor Weiler, in his capacity as editor-in-chief of the European Journal of International Law, exercised nothing but due diligence and responsible editorial oversight first in publishing the book review by Professor Thomas Weigend and then by responding appropriately to Dr. Calvo-Goller’s complaints. As an editor of an academic journal that also publishes book reviews and deals with controversial themes, I strongly affirm that Professor Weiler’s actions were at all points consistent with best practice in academic publishing.

It is an ordinary fact of academic life that the authors of books sometimes disagree with reviews of their work and occasionally claim that they have been either misrepresented or even attacked. It is not uncommon for some to respond heatedly. One task of an editor is to provide an opportunity for an aggrieved author to make factual corrections and within reason to rebut criticisms. Professor Weiler did exactly this. Professor Weiler, in responding to Dr. Calvo-Goller, noted the extraordinary nature of her demand that the book review be removed from the online version of the journal. He correctly pointed out that such a step departs from “common conventions of academic discourse and academic publication.” I would amplify his statement. 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of five academic journals, I have never previously encountered such a demand or any instance in which a book review was withdrawn after publication.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. I trust that if this matter proceeds to trial, the court will itself reach that conclusion as well. That, however, is not the entirety of the problem. The French court, by assuming jurisdiction in this matter, has lent itself to a breach of the rules on which academic freedom depends. A meritless case involving a German book reviewer, an Israeli scholar, and an American editor, has somehow landed in a Paris courtroom. The book review, written in English and published outside France, has only a tenuous connection to French interests. By the standards invoked in this case—namely, that the journal is available in online format to readers in France—virtually any scholarly work in the world is potentially subject to nuisance suits to be adjudicated on French soil. Professor Weiler has already incurred significant costs in defending himself. Presumably that was much of what Dr. Calvo-Goller intended. It is shameful that the French legal system would lend itself to this charade.

The issue of most importance, however, is the threat to academic freedom conjured by this train of circumstances. One scholar has sought to use the instruments of law to censor an expression of views with which she disagrees. She has declined to make use of the ordinary and proper channels for expressing such disagreement. If her action stands as precedent, it will certainly chill the willingness of scholars and editors alike to present forthright examinations of academic work. They will be especially wary of expressing critical views, no matter how well-founded. Such a situation would not serve the broader public interest in France or anywhere else. The progress of ideas is utterly dependent on the existence of intellectual freedom, unfettered debate, and robust exchange of ideas.

Inevitably reviewers will commit errors and authors will at times be justified in taking exception. Scholarly journals such as my own and the European Journal of International Law have tried and true procedures for dealing with these matters. They do not ordinarily rise to the level of litigation. There is nothing in Dr. Calvo-Goller’s complaint that warrants a departure from these norms. I urge the court to dismiss this case. Further I hope that French authorities, reflecting on this travesty, will take steps to ensure that France does not become the destination of choice for the academic version of libel tourists.

Yours sincerely, 

Peter Wood, Ph.D.

President, National Association of Scholars 

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