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A University Press Stands Up -- and Wins

August 16, 2007

Yale University Press on Wednesday announced that a libel suit against it and one of its authors has been dropped, without any changes being made in the book or any payments to the plaintiffs. The book in question is about Hamas and comes just weeks after Cambridge University Press settled a libel case against it over a book about Islamic terrorism by promising to destroy remaining copies of the book.

The cases are notably different in that Cambridge was sued in Britain (where libel protections for authors and publishers are much weaker than those in the United States) and Yale was able to file motions in California courts, which have stronger libel protections for authors and publishers than much of the United States. But the fact that Yale took a strong legal stance on a book about Hamas is likely to cheer scholars of terrorism, some of whom have been deeply concerned that the Cambridge settlement would prompt other presses to back down if sued.

The book over which Yale was sued is Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, by Matthew Levitt, who is director of the Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence and Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While some observers have distinguished between Hamas's terrorist activities and the group's social service activities with Palestinians, Levitt's argument is that they are in fact intertwined. Yale's description of the book says: "Levitt demolishes the notion that Hamas’ military, political, and social wings are distinct from one another and catalogues the alarming extent to which the organization’s political and social welfare leaders support terror. He exposes Hamas as a unitary organization committed to a militant Islamist ideology, urges the international community to take heed, and offers well-considered ideas for countering the significant threat Hamas poses."

The libel suit was filed in California in April by KinderUSA, a nonprofit group that says it raises money for Palestinian children and families, and Laila Al-Marayati, the chair of the group's board. They sued over two passages and related footnotes in the book about charitable groups in the United States that the author believes are linked to terrorist groups. The U.S. government has investigated some Muslim charities in the United States for such links, but also said that such probes do not suggest that all Muslim charities have such links. The lawsuit specifically objected to this passage: "The formation of KinderUSA highlights an increasingly common trend: banned charities continuing to operate by incorporating under new names in response to designation as terrorist entities or in an effort to evade attention. This trend is also seen with groups raising money for al-Qaeda."

According to the suit, suggesting that KinderUSA "funds terrorist or illegal organizations" was "false and damaging" and libelous. The suit also alleged that Yale "did not conduct any fact-checking" for the book. KinderUSA asked the court for an injunction on its request that distribution of the book be halted, and also sought $500,000 in damages.

Since the suit was filed, Yale has indicated that it and its author stood behind the book. (Levitt was out of town Wednesday and could not be reached.) But in July, Yale raised the stakes by filing what is known as an "anti-SLAPP suit" motion, seeking to quash the libel suit and to receive legal fees. SLAPP is an acronym for "strategic lawsuit against public participation," a category of lawsuit viewed as an attempt not to win in court, but to harass a nonprofit group or publication that is raising issues of public concern. The fear of those sued is that groups with more money can tie them up in court in ways that would discourage them from exercising their rights to free speech. Anti-SLAPP statutes, such as the one in California with which Yale responded, are a tool created in some states to counter such suits.

In Yale's response, it noted that KinderUSA has been reported to be the subject of investigation by federal authorities, that these investigations have received detailed press coverage (prior to the book), and that the views of the book were legitimate and contained no errors of fact that meet the test for libel. Yale noted that the book was subject to peer review and copy editing and that the author verified that he had fact-checked the book. A Yale editor certified that he had no knowledge that anything in the book was incorrect. Yale's brief called the suit a "classic, meritless challenge to free expression," and sought the suit's dismissal and legal fees. While Yale's motion was not heard in court, the suit was withdrawn shortly after it was filed.

"I think this represents a win for free expression, and for university presses," said Dean Ringel, a lawyer who worked on the case for the Yale press. Ringel said that Yale believed the book had not libeled anyone and that the suit needed to be defended.

Todd Gallinger, a lawyer for KinderUSA, confirmed that the suit had been withdrawn. He said that his clients decided to do so not because of "anything we perceive in weaknesses in the actual case," but out of a desire to focus the group's "limited resources" on its mission of helping "Palestinian children in need." Asked if Yale's anti-SLAPP motion influenced the decision, Gallinger said that "Yale came at us hard."

The Cambridge book, Alms of Jihad, also dealt in part with the issue of the financing of terrorist groups by individuals or organizations that deny support terrorism. The settlement in that case has been criticized by some authors as discouraging tough arguments about terrorism.

Sanford G. Thatcher, director of the Penn State University Press and president of the American Association of University Presses, said he thought his fellow press directors would be very pleased by the news that Yale had fended off a libel suit. He said that libel has been an increasing concern to presses in recent years, as the expense of litigation is not something that most university presses would want to face. The concern has been particularly notable for presses that publish extensively on the Middle East, he said.

Penn State does not focus on the Middle East, but he said that his editorial team has become more attuned to libel issues, providing background on libel law to copy editors and having a few books read by lawyers. "I think all presses are just more aware now of the possibility of a suit," he said.

In the case of Penn State, Thatcher said that closer reviews for libel concerns have led the press to ask a few authors for "some rephrasings of things to make the opening for a potential suit less likely," but he said that those changes have not affected "the substance" of the books.

 

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