Academic Freedom

French Court Finds in Favor of Journal Editor Sued for Libel Over Book Review

Joseph Weiler
March 02, 2011

A French court has dismissed a criminal-libel charge brought against a journal editor over a negative book review and ordered the plaintiff to pay punitive damages. The editor, Joseph H.H. Weiler, a professor at New York University's School of Law, said he had been awarded €8,000 (about $11,000) as a result of the action brought against him by Karin N. Calvo-Goller, a senior lecturer at the Academic Center of Law & Business, in Israel.

Mr. Weiler is editor in chief of the European Journal of International Law; he also edits a related Web site, Global Law Books.

In 2007 he published on that Web site a short review of a book by Ms. Calvo-Goller. The reviewer was Thomas Weigend, a professor of law at the University of Cologne. (Mr. Weigend was not named in the lawsuit.)

Ms. Calvo-Goller thought the review was defamatory and asked Mr. Weiler to take it down. He said no but offered her the chance to respond to it on the Web site, an opportunity she declined. Instead she brought a criminal-libel complaint against him in France. (Ms. Calvo-Goller is based in Israel but has French citizenship as well, according to news reports. The Chronicle was unable to reach her for comment on Thursday.)

The case alarmed other journal editors and reviewers, who worried that a decision in Ms. Calvo-Goller's favor would have a chilling effect on scholars' and editors' willingness to publish reviews. Mr. Weiler published an editorial in his international-law journal about the principles of academic freedom he felt were at stake in the matter.

The case was heard on January 20, 2011, by the Tribunal de Grand Instance de Paris, which handed down a decision on Thursday, according to Mr. Weiler. He provided The Chronicle with a copy of the court's ruling, which is not otherwise available online.

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.

Mr. Weiler has now posted an account of the ruling on his journal's blog, EJIL: Talk! Earlier, in a January 25 post, he described the legal strategy he and his lawyers used. They considered the action "an egregious instance of 'forum shopping'" or "libel tourism," he wrote. "It was important to challenge this hugely dangerous attack on academic freedom and liberty of expression," he said. "Reversing custom, we specifically asked the court not to examine our jurisdictional challenge as a preliminary matter but to join it to the case on the merits so that it would have the possibility to pronounce on both issues."

In an interview today, Mr. Weiler said he preferred to let the judgment speak for itself. He quoted the saying "Whoever adds, detracts."

He also said that under French law, Ms. Calvo-Goller has 10 days in which to appeal the ruling.