Criminal libel

From a book review to a criminal trial in France

In a little more than a week, a court in Paris will decide whether a law professor in New York committed criminal libel by publishing a book review.

No author enjoys a negative review. But most writers limit themselves to a predictable set of responses on reading a cutting evaluation of their work, usually in this order: incredulity, embarrassment, self-loathing, stewing, grumbling, anger, scheming and letter to the editor.

Karin N. Calvo-Goller, a senior lecturer at the Academic Center of Law and Business in Israel and the author of "The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court," was more creative. She lodged a criminal complaint in a country with almost no connection to the book or the review.

You are by now probably curious about what the review could possibly have said.

It was four paragraphs long and published in 2007 on Global Law Books, a Web site associated with The European Journal of International Law. It was sober, technical and mild. Indeed, it would not be hard to find a more caustic review on any given Sunday in this newspaper.

The reviewer, Thomas Weigend, a law professor at the University of Cologne, adopted a measured and patiently condescending tone. He said the book "meticulously covers all relevant topics," and he praised its occasional "analytical nuggets." But he faulted the book for "rehashing the existing legal set-up" and questioned Ms. Calvo-Goller's "conceptual grasp" of some matters.

Ms. Calvo-Goller responded by demanding that the review be deleted.

"I am aware of the extent of freedom of expression under the First Amendment," she wrote to the site's editor, Joseph Weiler, a law professor at New York University. "However, the extent of that freedom ends where its exercise damages the reputation of an individual."

Professor Weiler refused to remove the review but offered Ms. Calvo-Goller a chance to respond. Instead, she filed a criminal complaint in Paris against both Professor Weigend, who wrote the review, and Professor Weiler, who published it.

France is an odd place to adjudicate a claim concerning a review written in English by a German professor of a book written in English by an author living in Israel. The book was, moreover, published by a Dutch firm. The review was published on a Web site in New York. True, Ms. Calvo-Goller is a French citizen. But still.

The trial took place in January before three judges in the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris. Professor Weigend did not appear. But Professor Weiler said he had not considered boycotting the proceedings.

"I wanted to appear because I did not want some sort of bench warrant every time I go to France," he said, "but mostly because I thought it was worth litigating."

Professor Weiler specializes in comparative constitutional law, and he approached the proceedings with an open mind. He said he was not quick to find fault with the French conception of defamation, which views attacks on honor as a form of assault.

"One should think before one condemns," he said. "They don't have in their culture 'sticks and stones will break one's bones, but words will never hurt you.' "

He added that the trial was conducted with impeccable fairness and care. "I walked away very respectful of it," he said.

Professor Weiler did allow that it was a little much to bring the criminal law into it. Should he lose, he faces a substantial fine and a stigma that could make obtaining visas and the like problematic.

"Every time I have to fill out a form asking if I have ever been convicted of a crime, I'd have to say yes," Professor Weiler said. "But I am most concerned with the chilling effect on open academic book reviewing."

The French court will announce its verdict on March 3. It could merely say that the court lacked jurisdiction over a matter with so few connections to France, but Professor Weiler hopes it will say more and affirm the value of academic debate.

Last year, Congress enacted a law meant to protect people subjected to libel suits in countries without the United States' commitment to free speech. While the law makes it hard for plaintiffs to collect foreign libel judgments, it can do nothing to expunge a criminal conviction abroad.

Ms. Calvo-Goller did not respond to two e-mails seeking comment. In her correspondence with Professor Weiler, she said the review he published "may cause harm to my professional reputation and academic promotion."

So may the prosecution she started.

Brian Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, assessed Ms. Calvo-Goller's case on his blog on philosophy and academic freedom. "The author has obviously done more damage to her reputation by making this criminal complaint than would have been possible by any book review, let alone the one in question," he wrote.

Ms. Calvo-Goller's book is available on Amazon, where there is but one customer review. That brave reviewer, critical of Ms. Calvo-Goller's lawsuit, gave the book a single star, the lowest rating.

(Published by NY Times - February 21, 2011)

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