Scholar vs scholar: libel case's 'disturbing implications' for free speech

February 25, 2010

The editor of a leading international law journal is to stand trial in a French court after he refused to pull an academic book review to which the author took exception.

Joseph Weiler, editor-in-chief of the European Journal of International Law (EJIL), is due to face a Paris criminal tribunal in June after refusing to remove the critical review from a website associated with the journal,

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 (2006), sued for libel after claiming that the review could damage her career.

In an editorial in the current issue of the EJIL, Professor Weiler, European Union Jean Monnet professor of law at the New York University School of Law, sets out the background to the case and appeals for assistance from readers, warning of grave ramifications if he loses.

The threat of libel has a "serious, chilling effect on editorial discretion, freedom of speech and the very important academic institution of book reviewing", Professor Weiler writes.

"Instigating a criminal libel case against me for refusing to remove the book review is misguided and inconsistent with the most fundamental practices of (academic discourse)," he says.

He adds that if the case is lost, it will "deal a heavy blow to academic freedom".

It could deter academics from writing "biting" reviews and journals may be "more worried of opening themselves up to such action", Professor Weiler told Times Higher Education.

The case concerns a review of Dr Calvo-Goller's 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. The review was published on the website in 2007.

Correspondence published in the EJIL editorial reveals that after it appeared, Dr Calvo-Goller wrote to Professor Weiler alleging that it was defamatory and asking for it to be taken down.

She supplied a positive review of the book and identified parts of Professor Weigend's review that she claimed were either false or went beyond fair comment.

She added that the review could "cause harm to my professional reputation and academic promotion".

Professor Weiler replied that he would not pull the review as he had examined it and did not believe it fell into the category of "egregious unreasonableness".

"The heavy burden needed in my eyes to suppress a book review has not been met," he wrote.

However, he said he would pass Dr Calvo-Goller's letter on to the reviewer to see if he wished to change anything and urged her to post a comment online.

Further correspondence followed in which Dr Calvo-Goller requested that the review be taken down temporarily. Professor Weiler again refused, informing her that Professor Weigend "stands by his book review as published" and that "we stand by our reviewer and by the integrity of his review".

He also offered her a chance to comment more fully.

Then, in September 2008, he received a court summons alleging criminal libel.

In his editorial, Professor Weiler asks readers to write in support, urging them to send other critical book reviews "to illustrate that this review is ... unexceptional".

Eric Barendt, Goodman professor of media law at University College London, said the case had "disturbing implications" for freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Dr Calvo-Goller did not respond to requests for comment.

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