Panning and Pangloss

February 4, 2011

I was once sent a book review that was so strong in its condemnation of the book that I never quite found space to publish it in the magazine. Only an elite few were allowed to read it (and one of those had to be put down immediately thereafter). Fortunately, those were the days before all SCL’s material, including material for which there is no space in the magazine, was available online (I was an editorial child prodigy) and before the ‘sorry no space’ excuse effectively died. I did not so much censor the review as feel sorry for the book’s author, although the avoidance of long-distance indignation, and the stress that might cause me, did play a small part. After a while, the author stopped asking when the review was to appear.

What had never occurred to me was that the publication of a negative book review might lead me into the dock in a French criminal court charged with criminal libel. But that is what has happened to Professor Joseph Weiler, Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Law and its associated Book Reviewing web site. He is awaiting a verdict from the French court.
Professor Weiler commissioned and then published a review of a book on the International Criminal Court. It was an unfavourable review. The author of the book claimed defamation and demanded removal of the review from the web site. Professor Weiler refused the request but did offer to publish a reply by the author (though that offer was declined). I must say that Professor Weiler showed incredible patience with the complaint – more than I can usually muster with children let alone an oversensitive academic.
Professor Weiler was eventually summoned to appear before an Examining Magistrate in Paris based on a complaint of criminal defamation lodged by the author. The book was in English, the publisher was Dutch and the reviewer German and the review was published on a New York web site. But, crucially, the author, an Israeli academic, had retained French citizenship and, of course, the review was available in France as well as everywhere else in the world.
The full story is to be found {here:}. You might want to express your support for Professor Weiler in the interests of academic freedom and freedom of speech generally. The implications of a successful prosecution ({i}surely{/i} unlikely) are frightening. A number of SCL members will readily see themselves in danger of a similar fate and surely none of us want to live in a cyberworld of fear. The right to express a robust opinion is fundamental to our sanity let alone our quality of life.

But I confess that I have a less altruistic reason for drawing the matter to attention. Our plan is to greatly improve our book reviewing procedures and publish regular reviews of relevant works. And that is happening soon. I want any trip to France to be for leisure So I want to make it clear that whatever a review might seem to imply and however condemnatory the tone – even if the book is completely panned – any book by a French author (or even one by any author with a vaguely French-sounding name) is the best possible book in the best of all possible worlds.