Thursday, April 29, 2010

academic freedom: nationalist propaganda about academic work

Here, I just want to use the idea of libel to establish the rules of academic debate and academic freedom generally (and free speech universally); to touch upon the problems of using law to limit scholarly discussion; and to consider academic ways of challenging nationalist propaganda about academic work.


I have signed the Libel Reform Campaign petition to Keep Libel Laws Out of Science. I believe that,
Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate....

Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.... material they [the authors] believe is true, fair and important to the public.(1)
As the Daily Telegraph (2010) summarised the British Appeal Court's recent ruling on the British Chiropractic Association's libel case against Dr. Simon Singh: 'on issues of scientific dispute you cannot be sued for', or in other words, you cannot libel someone by, 'expressing an honest opinion'.

Thus, the basic criteria for academic debate are:
  1. fair comment (which is believed to be balanced); which expresses,
  2. (a) reasonable fact (which is believed to be proved); or,
    (b) honest opinion (which cannot be proved or disproved);
  3. in the public interest (which is believed to be important).
For example, Dr. Simon Singh insisted on defending his work, which he rightly 'believe[d] to be fair, accurate and in the public interest' (Singh and Coghlan, 2010).


As the European Society of International Law said, 'critique is the essence of scholarship', 'necessary' to academic work (cited by Howard, 2010). Academic argument ought to be the selfless statement of informed, genuine (not necessarily true) belief.

Lawyer François H. Briard (cited by Howard, 2010) observed that '[u]sually there is no libel between academics', but '[i]f real harm is done', the only defences are that it was done in 'good faith, for example relying on public facts or wrong information', or that the harmful opinion 'relie[d] on true facts'.

Still, the label and the law of libel do get misused. Senior law lecturer Kevin Jon Heller (2010) judged one libel complaint against an academic book review 'thuggery', because 'none of the factual claims... appear[ed] to be false', and the accuser gave 'no evidence' that the accused 'knowing[ly]' made any false claims.

Identifying one of the many consequences of such intellectual thuggery, American Journal of International Law joint chief editor Lori Fisler Damrosch worried about material 'vanish[ing] altogether if an angry author succeed[ed] in having it removed' (cited by Howard, 2010).

Yet, what should be done about truly lazy or deliberate falsehoods (negligent or malicious misrepresentations)? Is it acceptable for truly libellous material to 'vanish altogether', or should it remain in some corrected form for the record?

Academic lies

Prof. Dr. Ata Atun's newspaper article was outside of the academic arena, outside of academic debate. He did not protest in an academic publication; he did not notify me of his article to enable me to reply; and his article did not inform the public about my research, or even encourage them to review it, but rather incite them to protest against it.

There are three basic ways of challenging that unscholarly behaviour:
  1. winning a retraction, correction and/or apology from the defamer (but without authority or power, that is not always easy, or even possible);
  2. winning the article's removal by the publisher (but that can be similarly difficult or impossible; moreover, even when it is achieved, it does not correct the falsehoods or recognise their falsity); or,
  3. offering a reply (but that may not be published; if it is published, it gives the defamer false academic legitimacy; and also if it is published, it reduces matters of the academic's facts and the defamer's falsehoods to one's opinion and the other's perception, so the academic can never definitively prove their innocence).
As I explained to Avrupa Gazetesi (and similarly to other newspapers):
He did not hear my paper; he reported hearsay (from someone who very deliberately misrepresented me). Atun did not ask me for comment or clarification before publication, and he ha[d] not replied since [at the time of writing].

[As proof, I provided them with my original paper, and with my corrections, both of Atun's source and of his article.]
Then, I asked for Mr. Atun: 'to publish a withdrawal' of the false accusations; 'to call a halt' to his campaign against me; and 'to apologise' for his unprofessional, defamatory article about me, and for his unscholarly, international campaign against me.

Six days later, I observed that,
Mr. Atun has still not published a retraction of his libellous article, or [and had not] even replied to me privately [at the time of writing]. In fact, he has continued to publish it elsewhere....
Indeed, in Turkish national weekly newspaper, Yeni Dünya Gündemi Gazetesi, it was front page news (see image 1).

Image 1: (c) Yeni Dünya Gündemi Gazetesi (18th-27th April 2010).

In the letter to the newspaper, I concluded that,
Because of its false and harmful content, I must ask you to remove İngiliz Akademisyenin Yalanları from your website.
Avrupa Gazetesi did so; now, the page 'does not exist [yok]'. Apart from one other newspaper, however, no other newspapers or internet sites have even replied.

The one other newspaper, whose editor I trust, judged that if it removed the article, it could be accused of censorship. So, that newspaper has left the article unchanged; however, it has offered me the right of reply.

As I said, I do not want to give Atun's misrepresentations false academic credibility, or to reduce my factual corrections to personal opinions; but I also do not want to force innocent third parties (e.g. editors) to violate their own personal or professional ethics, or to make them targets of nationalist propagandists.

I guess I'll just make the best of a bad job.
  1. See also the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Bloggers' Legal Guide; and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's work Towards Decriminalisation of Defamation [Resolution 1577, 4th October 2007].

Atun, A. 2010: "İngiliz akademisyenin yalanları [the English academic's lies]". Avrupa Gazetesi, 15. Nisan. [Başlangıçta şu adreste bulunabilir:]

Atun, A. 2010: "İngiliz akademisyenin yalanları [the English academic's lies]". Yeni Dünya Gündemi Gazetesi, 18.-24. Nisan. Şu adreste bulunabilir:

Atun, A. 2010: "İngiliz akademisyenin yalanları [the English academic's lies]". Hür Yorum Gazetesi, 19. Nisan. Şu adreste bulunabilir:

Daily Telegraph. 2010: "Simon Singh's libel battle highlights the need for reform". The Daily Telegraph, 1st April. Available at:

Heller, K J. 2010: "Criminal libel for publishing a critical book review? Seriously?". Opinio Juris [weblog], 12th February. Available at:

Howard, J. 2010: "Libel case, prompted by an academic book review, has scholars worried". The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25th April. Available at:

Singh, S and Coghlan, A. 2010: "Simon Singh: The libel fight goes on". New Scientist, 1st April. Available at:

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