We've previously covered the British Chiropractic Association's libel suit against Simon Singh, and the successful effort by Nemesysco to force a critical article to be withdrawn from the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law. Both of these cases involved the peculiar situation of English libel law, which (in the opinion of many) makes it too easy for wealthy plaintiffs to bully authors and publishers into silence.
An interesting case now in process involves an even more straightforward threat to intellectual discourse, in that both the plaintiff and the defendent are academics, and the contested writing is a critical book review in an academic journal. And this time the court is in France, not England.
You can read about the whole story in an editorial by Joseph Weiler, "Book reviewing and academic freedom", The European Journal of International Law, 20(4):
Readers of EJIL will be aware of the two book review websites which have been associated for some time with this Journal and of which I am, too, Editor-in-Chief: www.globallawbooks.org and www.Europeanlawbooks.org. You will find links to them on the very Homepage of www.ejil.org and www.ejiltalk.org. On 25 June 2010 I will stand trial before a Paris Criminal Tribunal for refusing to remove a book review written by a distinguished academic to which, however, the author of the book in question took exception. The matter is of serious concern to EJIL, but more generally to academic book reviewing in general.
The book in question is Dr Karin N. Calvo-Goller, The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court. ICTY and ICTR Precedents, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2006. The (largely) negative review was by Professor Thomas Weigend, "Professor of Law, Director of the Cologne Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law. Director of the Cologne Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law and currently Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cologne".
I have no opinion on the merits of Calvo-Goller's criticisms of Weigend's review. [The editor] Weiler's offer to allow her space to rebut the review strikes me as generous, appropriate, and a better deal than most reviewed authors get:
It would be perfectly in order for you to write a comment which, after editorial approval, could be posted on the website and seen by anyone who reads the review.
Dr. Calvo-Goller's decision to go forward with a legal case, in contrast, strikes me as a very bad thing. Most academic journals operate on a financial shoestring. If any significant fraction of the recipients of negative reviews — or negative evaluations in the literature review sections of research papers — decided to bring suit, most such journals would be driven out of business quickly, even if they won all the cases.
Despite the best efforts of editors, reviews and other discussions in scholarly, scientific and technical journals are not always accurate and not always even fair. (And frankly, editors don't always put as much effort as they ideally should into checking such things, either because they trust the reviewer, or because they agree with the reviewer's conclusion, or because they're too busy with other things.)
But the law courts are surely a terrible way to try to settle such matters. Judges, juries, and lawyers are not in general competent to understand the issues involved; and the process is slow and expensive at best. The sort of offer that Weiler made to Calvo-Goller — to place a rebuttal next to the review, with readers invited to evaluate both — is a much better option, in my opinion.
From Weiler's (first) letter to Calvo-Goller:
I am very glad for you that other reviewers, such as Professor Ambos, reviewed the book favorably. But it is a very normal occurrence that the very same book is reviewed favorably by one reviewer and critically by another. I do not doubt for one moment the integrity of Professor Ambos (it is really not necessary to point out to me that you never met him etc.) but if, as seems to be the case, you are trying to suggest that because there is a favorable book review by one distinguished reviewer, the integrity of another, unfavorable review, is automatically called into question, I must politely express my dissent. The Talmud has long ago taught us that even contradictory conclusions can both be the living word of God. (Ellu veEullu Divrey Elohim Chayim).
[Hat tip -- Elizabeth Peña]