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An academic press sues a librarian, raising issues of academic freedom

Price of a Bad Review
February 8, 2013

Librarian questions quality of a publishing house. Librarian publicly criticizes said press on his personal blog. Two years later, librarian and current employer get sued for libel and damages in excess of $4 million.

That’s been the progression of events for Dale Askey, associate university librarian at McMaster University in Ontario, where he’s been working since 2011. At the time of his blog post, in August 2010, Askey was a tenured associate professor at Kansas State University, where librarians are granted faculty status. He said his comments about Edwin Mellen Press, since removed from his blog, pertained to his work, assessing materials for potential inclusion in Kansas State’s library collection in a time of diminishing resources.

“It was, as such, my job to assess the quality of books, and I did so based on many years of experience in the field,” he said in an e-mail interview. “As budgets decrease, the necessity to be more discerning increases, yet libraries have reduced their qualified staff numbers over the years. As a qualified and experienced librarian, I was sharing a professional opinion for consumption by peers.”

Askey declined to say when or why he removed the post from his blog. According to court documents, Askey’s critique was posted as “The Curious Case of Edwin Mellen Press,” through early 2012, and referred to Mellen a “vanity press” with “few, if any, noted scholars serving as series editors,” benefiting largely from librarians not returning books sent for approval at “egregiously high prices.” (In the suit, Mellen refutes many of these claims, saying its average list price is lower than Askey alleged; that most books are sent out by special order and not through approval plans; and that books are edited by reputable scholars.)

Edwin Mellen Press, an academic publisher with offices in upstate New York and Britain, filed two lawsuits in June in Ontario’s Superior Court. The first implicates Askey and McMaster, his current employer and employer for some of the time the blog post was live, as "vicariously liable" for his statements, and claims libel and exemplary damages in the amount of $3.5 million. A second suit, filed against Askey alone, claims more than $1 million in similar damages (the individual suit names Herbert Richardson, press founder, as plaintiff and alleges additional, defamatory remarks directed against him personally on the blog).

Representatives from the press did not return requests for comments. Richardson’s lawyer was not immediately available for comment.

Askey said he was shocked by the complaints, which were filed shortly after he moved to Canada. “The librarian profession is one that values open dialogue and critical opinions,” he said. “This is especially true, perhaps, of academic librarianship, since many librarians are faculty members and thus have strongly held views regarding academic freedom.”

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called Mellen’s move “deeply concerning,” and a clear attempt to silence Askey’s exercise of academic freedom by legal action. One of the most disturbing aspects of the case, he said, is that McMaster has yet to provide Askey with legal support – something the association is trying to rectify by direct engagement with the university.

“This is very major matter,” said Turk. “It’s one of the more significant attacks on an academic staff person in Canada and the implications of it being successful or for [Askey] having to settle because he couldn’t afford to defend himself against the claims would be dire. It would be a sad day for academic freedom in this country.”

No court date has been set for either suit. Askey said he is currently paying his own legal bills for both suits, but said that he had reached out to Kansas State for support, “considering the principles at stake.”

Regarding McMaster’s reaction to the suits, Askey said only: “I enjoy the work I do at McMaster, appreciate the opportunities that have arisen here, and look forward to continuing my work here. They have my full professional support and dedication.”

McMaster University officials did not respond to initial requests for comment. Today, McMaster posted a public statement on the case, pledging its commitment to academic freedom: "In its Statement on Academic Freedom, McMaster University affirms the right of the academic community to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion. Beyond this commitment to teach and learn unhindered by non-academic constraints, the university strongly supports the exercise of free speech as a critical social good. For this reason, McMaster University has for more than 18 months rejected all demands and considerable pressure from the Edwin Mellen Press to repudiate the professional opinions of university librarian Dale Askey, notwithstanding the fact that those opinions were published on his personal blog several months before he joined McMaster." (Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include McMaster's response.)

A Kansas State spokeswoman said the university doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Other members of the academy have publicly supported Askey, including Leslie Green, a professor of law at the University of Oxford with honorary adjunct faculty status at McMaster.

“Librarians are expert at making such judgments; that’s what universities pay them to do,” Green wrote on a recent Leiter Reports philosophy blog post that put Edwin Mellen Press at the bottom of a list of 34 "best book publishers of philosophy in English," based on a reader poll. “And [Askey’s] post made a key point about the public interest: ‘In a time when libraries cannot purchase so much of the first-class scholarship, there is simply no reason to support such ventures.’ ”

Another blog maintained by a Princeton University librarian, Academic Librarian, reports that Mellen sued the esteemed but now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine in 1993 for remarks similar to Askey’s but lost the case. Ironically, a book, The Edwin Mellen Press Versus Lingua Franca: A Case Study in the Law of Libel, was written about the case in 2006. The publisher? Edwin Mellen Press.

Green called McMaster’s “public silence” on the matter surprising and urged the university to support Askey. “Let’s hope someone at McMaster forcefully says ‘enough’ to this sort of bullying. Universities have a negative duty not to abridge the academic freedom of their members; they also have a positive duty to see to it that others do not do it either.”

Askey said his case, like others before, shows that although academics largely espouse their firm belief in academic freedom, “the integrity of true academic freedom is only as strong as the will and resources to defend it.”

 

 

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