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 of Arab politics in the department of Middle East and Asian languages and culture at Columbia University, in the Fall 2007 issue of Art Journal. Mr. Massad has also been embroiled in a battle over his bid for tenure at Columbia, which was initially vetoed by a dean at the university but will undergo a second review this coming year (The Chronicle, June 6).
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.
"What I did accuse her of is appropriating ideas without crediting the person properly," Mr. Massad said in an interview. "If every academic was going to think that any critique of academic scholarship was going to have to be defended in a court of law, the state of academic argumentation would be very different."
Liberal Libel Laws
That Ms. Ankori threatened to sue over the article is a turn of events that has grown more frequent in recent years. That she was considering the prospect of legal redress in Britain is also no surprise. Libel laws in that country notoriously favor plaintiffs, even those based elsewhere (hence the term "libel tourism"). The art association, which is based in the United States, has many international members.
In February 2008, according to the association, Ms. Ankori's lawyers sent the group a letter alleging that the review "contained untrue statements and was defamatory of her and her work." 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," Ms. Downs said.
Major publishing houses "set aside funds for libel suits," she observed, but her group does not have such deep pockets. Even major publishers, however, have backed down when confronted with similar actions brought in British courts. Consider Cambridge University Press's decision to pulp a 2006 book, Alms for Jihad, in response to a lawsuit by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi banker. That book alleged that Mr. Mahfouz had financial ties to groups implicated in terrorism in Sudan and other locales in the 1990s (The Chronicle, August 10, 2007).
The Right Response?
The art association reached an agreement with Ms. Ankori's lawyers about three weeks ago, Ms. Downs said. She could not disclose the details but sent The Chronicle a copy of a statement that her group sent to its approximately 2,000 institutional members and institutional Art Journal subscribers. The statement also went to online repositories such as JStor and ProQuest that distribute the journal electronically.
"Having thoroughly investigated the matter, CAA acknowledges that the review contained factual errors and certain unfounded assertions," the statement says. "CAA has apologized to Professor Ankori and has agreed to a settlement."
It asks institutional subscribers to pull the offending portions of the review and to make sure they are "withdrawn from any form of circulation." And it cautions that "any further publication of the errors to any third party might give rise to a cause of action against whomever is responsible for that publication."
Paul B. Jaskot, the association's president and an associate professor of art history at DePaul University, said that the increasingly global context of scholarship played a big role in the group's decision. "We certainly need to acknowledge as learned societies that we are in a different international publishing environment," he said. Within that broad context, "we have to be aware of the variety of scholarly institutions and cultures, and legal cultures, in other countries."
The case demonstrates that scholarly publishers may not be able to count on hitherto standard practices. According to Ms. Downs, the disputed review went through "the normal editorial process" and had been reviewed in keeping with U.S. libel law. In those terms, she said, "there are no legal issues, from what we are informed."
"We feel very sad about this because all of our journals provide a platform for debate," she said, "and we were very unhappy that this was taken into a legal realm instead of being debated on an intellectual level."
Mr. Massad acknowledged that his review contained a couple of errata—an erroneous publication date, for instance—but stood by his work and by the right to air scholarly criticisms in an academic setting. "The claims made in my review were made in even stronger terms in other reviews, particularly in the Arabic press," he said.
Mr. Massad said he understood the financial pressures but called the settlement "a cowardly act" on the association's part. "It's willing to become morally bankrupt but not financially bankrupt."
"This is a bigger fight than this particular review," he told The Chronicle. "This is a battle that should be fought, and it would have behooved them to fight it."