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Threat of UK Libel Tourism Leads to Revision of Book Review

British libel tourism is not just for Saudi billionaires and Ukrainian businessmen: an Israeli academic has now used the threat of the London High Court to have passages removed from a book review published in the USA. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

The College Art Association has averted a so-called libel tourism action threatened against it in Britain. The threat came from an Israeli professor of art history angry over a review of her book in Art Journal, one of the association’s scholarly publications. The parties agreed that the association would ask institutional subscribers to the journal to withdraw portions of the disputed article from circulation.

Gannit Ankori, chair of the art-history department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was reportedly upset by a review of her book Palestinian Art (Reaktion Books, 2006), by Joseph A. Massad, an associate professor…at Columbia University…

Mr. Massad’s review, “Permission to Paint: Palestinian Art and the Colonial Encounter,” is a lengthy treatment of three books on the subject. In it, Mr. Massad describes a controversy concerning Ms. Ankori’s use of the work and theories of Kamal Boullata, a Palestinian painter and art historian. The disputed article does not directly accuse Ms. Ankori of plagiarism, but in her communications with the association, she argued that it was defamatory all the same.

Of course, a UK libel action might not have gone very far, but we’ll never know, since the College Art Association considered (reasonably) that it wasn’t worth the risk:

The group consulted with lawyers here and in Britain, according to its executive director, Linda Downs, and decided that the cost and risk of defending a libel case there looked punishingly high.

“Ninety-eight percent of defendants on libel cases lose there,” [executive director Linda] Downs said.

Had the College Art Association lost in a libel action in London, it might have had protection under New York State’s Libel Terrorism Protection Act, which allows “New York’s courts to declare that a foreign judgment was unenforceable if the courts decided that the libel laws in foreign jurisdictions did not protect freedom of speech and the press to the same extent as the laws in New York and the US”. Despite its silly name, the Act does not just confine itself to libel cases concerning terrorism, but is concerned with freedom of speech in general. Of course, Ankori might have won her case in London and the New York courts might have agreed that the judgement was just – but again, we’ll never know, and if Ankori were confident that her case met the American definition of libel, surely she would have pursued the dispute there?

Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see the conservative response to this story. On the one hand, US conservatives railed against British courts and “libel tourism” over Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz’s use of British libel laws against the American scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld; but on the other hand, Massad is a conservative hate figure because of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US involvement in the Middle East. Daniel Pipes’s Campus Watch has reproduced the Chronicle article, albeit without comment.

UPDATE: Apparently the Art Journal paid out $75,000 to avoid a libel case. Ankori says that this will pay her legal costs, and the remainder will be donated to charity.

UPDATE 2: Ankori’s lawyer opines  on the “parochial” and “out of step” First Amendment.

2 Responses

  1. I believe you’ve been following the adventures of Khalid Salim A. bin Mahfouz and the book “Alms For Jihad.” You may already know this, but Wikileaks has made the book available as a free download:

    http://secure.wikileaks.org/wiki/Alms_for_Jihad:_Charity_and_Terrorism_in_the_Islamic_World

    Shorter URL: http://tinyurl.com/47e56l

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