Thursday, February 25, 2010

Academic Freedom and the French Courts

A rather astonishing--indeed shocking--attack on academic freedom has come to my attention (h/t Alex, Chris). Karin Calvo-Goller, an Israeli professor of international law, has filed criminal libel charges in France against Joseph Weiler, the editor of the European Journal of International Law, who has refused to withdraw from circulation a  review of Calvo-Goller's book by Thomas Weigend, dean of the law school in Cologne. Calvo-Goller alleges that the review contains knowingly false statements that will damage her professional reputation. Under French law, an allegation of libel by a private party is enough, as the examining judge explained to Weiler, for the case to be referred to trial without any examination of its merits by any organ of the state. Hence any aggrieved author with standing to take legal action in France can force the editor who publishes an unfavorable review to answer criminal charges in a French court. Even if the allegations are ultimately found to be without merit, the editor must thus bear the expense and anguish of a criminal court appearance. The consequences for freedom of academic publishing are obvious.

Anyone who has ever received a negative book review has entertained fantasies of revenge, but that an author would go to these lengths to prevent the circulation of a bad review is truly shocking to the conscience. Weiler's very firm but remarkably temperate replies to the aggrieved author, along with her letters to him, can be read here (long, but well worth reading). Other comment on this case can be found here and here. The question for France, of course, is whether this case reveals a defect in its libel laws that calls for amendment.

4 comments:

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Could she be doing this as a publicity stunt? i.e. ANY attention is better than none.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

PVF, If you know the mores of the academic world, you know that she will do far more harm to her reputation by going to court than any negative review could do. It is not always true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This was a private matter and should have remained so. Only a few people--experts in the subject--would have seen the review if she hadn't gone to court, and they could have judged the piece on its merits. Now it will receive wide circulation, and all that anyone will remember is that the author of a book wildly overreacted to a critique that wasn't even that harsh, as these things go. It's like football: if you play the game, you accept the risk of certain kinds of injury. And there are legitimate forms of payback. Going to court is not one of them.

satchmo said...

I'm impressed; this is one of the stranger items I've seen in some time.

Hard even to imagine what's going on in the mind of the complainant. The review itself, as Weiler points out, is mild as negative reviews go. The mind boggles in considering the kind of chaos that would ensue if reviews were actionable before the law.

Perhaps there's another level of irony in the fact that the incident occurs among attorneys and in a law journal.

But as Art points out, it seems inevitable now that the complainant's actions will create reputational damage far, far more widely than a review in a scholarly joural could ever have done. It seems a classic case of giving someone enough rope to hang themselves.

Leo said...

Up to now, the UK was THE place for libel tourism. I believe that I read somewhere that the US Congress is contemplating retortions that would goad Parliament to change its legislation.

Let's hope that French courts don't become a theater where disgruntled partied come to get redress.