Verdict handed down in French criminal libel trial of Joseph Weiler

Joseph WeilerConcluding a French case that had been closely watched by legal scholars and academics around the world because of its potential global ramifications for freedom of speech and academic discourse, the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris acquitted University Professor Joseph Weiler of criminal libel charges on March 3.

Weiler, who is also the Joseph Straus Professor of Law, had published a review of Karin N. Calvo-Goller’s The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court: ICTY and ICTR Precedents on the European Journal of International Law’s book review website, which he edits. Unhappy with the review, written by Thomas Weigend of the University of Cologne Faculty of Law, Calvo-Goller asked that it be removed from the site. Weiler demurred, but offered to publish a response from the author alongside the original review. Instead, Calvo-Goller, who lives in Israel, sued Weiler in French court. Weiler appeared in Paris to stand trial on January 20.

In a story in the New York Times, Adam Liptak expressed the skepticism shared by many: “France is an odd place to adjudicate a claim concerning a review written in English by a German professor of a book written in English by an author living in Israel. The book was, moreover, published by a Dutch firm. The review was published on a Web site in New York. True, Ms. Calvo-Goller is a French citizen. But still.”  
 
Academic and legal experts made note of the lawsuit because they felt it stretched the notion of jurisdiction, and argued that it might be an instance of “forum shopping.” (The only French connection, apart from Calvo-Goller's nationality: the book review could be accessed online in France.)  During the course of the trial, interested observers suggested that a guilty verdict could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression worldwide—not just for book reviewers, but also for bloggers, journalists, and anyone whose writings are available by any means in France. Anything published online anywhere in the world could be a potential target.

Following the verdict, Dean Richard Revesz said, "We are so proud of our remarkable colleague, Joseph Weiler, who stood firm for the cause of intellectual freedom, and so pleased that he has obtained a ruling that represents such a ringing endorsement of free speech values." Weiler could simply have challenged the court's jurisdiction, but chose to argue the merits of the libel charge as well.

In its ruling, which the plaintiff has the right to appeal, the French court characterized the lawsuit as forum shopping, deemed the book review an example of legitimate criticism, and ordered Calvo-Goller to pay €8,000 in compensation to the defendant. Weiler announced in his account of the trial's outcome that he will donate any monetary damages to a charitable cause.

Posted on March 11, 2011

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