In 2010 Dale Askey, a librarian at McMaster University in Canada, posted an essay on his personal blog referring to Edwin Mellen Press as a “vanity press.” In due time Mr. Askey and McMaster University were sued by Edwin Mellen Press and the press founder,  Herbert Richardson, for more than $3 million. The suits allege libel. The “offending” blog was removed from the web.
Not too long ago, International Higher Education, a publication I edit, was threatened with a lawsuit by the owner of an institution that, by every measure is a degree mill, when said institution was referenced in an International Higher Education article critical of degree mills. On advice of the university’s lawyers who were fearful of being entangled in a legal case (however questionable) in a British court where the suit was threatened, we removed the article from our website. The matter was soon forgotten.
A colleague of mine was threatened with a lawsuit after a presentation at a conference where an institution was referenced in a discussion of unaccredited universities awarding bachelors degrees. There was no misrepresentation of the institution (easily demonstrated since the session was recorded) but the institution felt that damage was done to its reputation and threatened to extend the suit to the association that sponsored the conference.
Perhaps a few anecdotes do not seem worth much attention but there are aspects of these examples that should be cause for concern. We are teetering on a very fine line between the right of scholars to express informed opinion and the right of enterprises to be protected from libel. Yet the increasing threats of lawsuits inhibit expression as scholars weigh risks before voicing opinions. There are serious consequences for academic freedom.
There are some (emphasis on some) for-profit enterprises that are involved in questionable academic endeavors. In the case of degree mills, this qualifies as fraud. In other cases, services are of substandard quality. In both cases these enterprises are “selling” a product or service in an academic marketplace where they will be judged by a range of constituents who have a vested interest in protecting the integrity of the academic enterprise. Yet the entrepreneurs who have found profit in higher education are often very touchy about any criticism at all. Sadly, they have found that threatening legal action can silence their critics who have neither the deep pockets for legal counsel to defend themselves or the inclination to become immersed in a lengthy legal proceeding. As the threat of lawsuits becomes more frequent, individuals and organizations may be more inclined to self-sensor. This will detract from important public debate that is fundamental in a free society.
In the Askey case, his comments about the Edwin Mellen Press reflected his extensive experience reviewing academic journals. The observation was not capricious. Online petitions are circulating to defend his right to express this opinion. The matter has raised the question of whether the Edwin Mellen suit violates Askey’s academic freedom.
Should individuals expressing opinions, particularly in areas where they have both advanced education and experience, be vulnerable to suits for expressing an informed opinion? It is perhaps especially egregious that a publisher in this instance should want to censor a librarian. One wonders how potential authors can be lured to submit publications to a publisher who sues other scholars simply because they express an opinion offensive to him? Once the broader academic community identifies which publishers, ranking agencies, and other for-profit “academic” enterprises threaten to sue critics for simply expressing their opinions, there may well be a more aggressive reaction against them. Let’s hope so.