Threats of legal action on Middle Eastern and Islamic issues are about as common as corrupt practices at the United Nations – and almost as problematic.
Islamist organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Global Relief Foundation frequently resort to litigation to suppress free speech, as do individual figures such as Khaled bin Mahfouz.
Personally, I have never threatened a lawsuit, preferring the court of public opinion to the court of law. If those who disagree with me have often enough raised the prospect of libel, just one person has actually gone to court against me. That would be a certain Douglas Card, adjunct professor at the University of Oregon.
His action originated from an article Jonathan Schanzer and I published in June 2002, "Extremists on Campus." The oped discussed anti-Israel activities at American universities and referenced several faculty members, including Mr. Card. In his complaint, Card took issue with the following paragraph:
University of Oregon: In a course entitled "Social Inequality," the sociology department's Douglas Card reportedly called Israel "a terrorist state" and Israelis "baby-killers" and insisted that students agree with his view that Israel "stole land" on the final exam. One student said Card bashed Israel and Jews "at every opportunity."
A few weeks after the article appeared, Mr. Card contacted me to protest this depiction, saying it caused him "great pain" and damaged his personal and professional reputation. He warned me that failing publicly to retract and apologize for this passage "would end up causing more damage to your own professional career than my own." My reply was terse: "I note your threat to do damage to my career. On principle, I do not communicate with someone who attempts to intimidate me."
Mr. Card responded, "I deeply regret using that phrase," thereby opening the way for negotiations between him, Mr. Schanzer, and me. Mr. Schanzer and I offered to compromise if he took several steps, including showing us the final exam in question and writing something that "describes the dangerous atmosphere that has developed on campus, then condemn the outbreak of hatred against Jews and Israel supporters." Were he to do so, we would publicly announce that we understand he does not condone extremism on campus.
He and we bargained over the details of this for a few rounds, going nowhere. Mr. Card then went quiet for many months and I forgot the whole matter.
Suddenly, in September 2003, he brought a libel suit against Mr. Schanzer and me, seeking a preposterously large sum of money. At the earliest possible point in the litigation, however, Mr. Card not only had his case dismissed in March 2004, but ended up owing us thousands of dollars in legal fees. Not surprisingly, he appealed the trial court's judgment.
This fall, the appellate court recommended a mediator to explore a settlement, as it does routinely. Mr. Card and we ultimately agreed to a resolution that, ironically, brought us almost precisely to where things had left off before he resorted to litigation.
Mr. Card finally showed us his examination and, in a joint statement, Mr. Card condemned "anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism" as well as "professors who use their classrooms to promote anti-Semitic and anti-Israel beliefs." He recognized "the danger of espousing such views - particularly on university campuses." He expressed "his horror at the wave of anti-Semitic events around the world in recent years" and said he was "especially troubled by the attacks on Jewish students on college campuses."
In light of these statements, Mr. Schanzer and I said we are now convinced that "Card does not condone extremism in the classroom."
I come away from this experience with two conclusions. First, Mr. Card made a mistake in taking the route of legal action, with all its nuisance and expense, for in the end he and we each did what could have done had he simply cooperated with us two years earlier. Exposing himself to the unforgiving demands of the court system turned out to be a bad idea.
Second, this libel case confirms what I noted concerning another lawsuit which I helped publicize: a cohort of smart, ambitious attorneys at major law firms are ready, even eager, to help on a pro-bono basis to fight back would-be censors such as CAIR. Freedom of speech, I am pleased to report, is still robust in these United States.