Lets assume, strictly for the sake of argument, that the controversial statements that have led Cambridge University Press to withdraw and pulp all unsold copies of Alms for Jihad are indeed false. Should an entire book be made to disappear from the face of the earth because it contains several false statements? Is it appropriate for the world’s libraries to withdraw all copies of Alms for Jihad from the shelf? Is there any precedent for this sort of response to a libel suit? Are there competing precedents?
For example, could Cambridge University Press have issued a public correction and sent pages containing the statement of correction to be pasted into library copies of Alms for Jihad? I believe I’ve seen pasted-in correction sheets in library books before, although simply for printing errors. Doesn’t destroying an entire book containing many uncontested facts–as well as various arguments and insights–seem like overkill? Given Jeffrey Breinholt’s disturbing account of intimidation by libel suit, are we now seeing the birth of a clever technique for destroying large numbers of controversial books?
Are libraries legally obligated to accede to Cambridge University Press’s request that they withdraw the book? Do they have the option of simply leaving the book on the shelf, unaltered? Do they have the option of pasting a note in the book containing the statement of error by Cambridge University Press? I don’t have the legal expertise to answer such questions, but maybe someone out there does.
Remember, this was a decision in a British court, and the request for withdrawal of the book comes from a British publisher. America has very different libel laws, and Rachel Ehrenfeld, whose book, Funding Evil has been attacked in Britain on the same grounds as Alms for Jihad, is mounting a strong legal defense of her book in the United States. Ehrenfeld is apparently under a British order to pay a fine, publish an apology, and destroy her books. But she recently won a U.S. court decision shielding her from that opinion. (Here’s a report on the legal state of play from J. D. Tuccille.) So what are the implications of all this for libraries holding Alms for Jihad? Do they have the legal right to resist the request to withdraw the book? Are they in any serious legal jeopardy if they refuse?
Jim Rettig , a librarian at the University of Richmond, is concerned about the precedent a withdrawal of Alms for Jihad from libraries book would set. Rettig notes that approximately 325 libraries report owning a copy of Alms for Jihad. It would be interesting to see a list of those libraries, and interesting to get reports from students or professors at those universities (and from the general public at public libraries) about whether Alms for Jihad has in fact been withdrawn from the shelves. At this point, I suspect the course of events could be much influenced by the opinions of experts about the legal obligations of libraries.
…Alright, doing a little research myself, it’s clear that there is indeed a precedent for book pulping induced by threatened or successful libel suits, at least outside the United States. Here’s a story from Australia. But notice that one solution is to publish an amended version of the book. Why couldn’t Cambridge Press–or some other press–try that with Alms for Jihad? In any case, is there a precedent for “book pulping” in America?
Again, given Jeffrey Breinholt’s account of the way libel suits have been used to intimidate, even in America, where libel cases are far harder to win than in Britain, do we now need to revisit and revise America’s laws on libel? Also, are there any legislative steps that ought to be taken to formally shield American authors–and libraries–from libel decisions in foreign courts?