So Sue Me

Cambridge University Press was sued for libel in the UK by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi accused of contributing to terrorism in the book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World. (Bin Mahfouz has filed suit against four publishers who published books that implicate his family’s bank in financing terrorism.) The press agreed the book was in error, has pulled it from the market and settled with bin Mafouz for an undisclosed sum without the case going to trial. Now, according a story in the Chron, the press will ask libraries to remove the book from their shelves.

Hmm.

I can understand a press deciding to pull the book from its catalog if they believe the book contains a serious factual inaccuracy. But should libraries follow suit? Add another wrinkle to the dilemma: the libel case was filed in the UK, which has laws that are far more sympathetic to a person claiming libel than those of the US. So far as I know, all of bin Mafouz’s suits have been filed in the UK, including one against a US publisher whose book wasn’t even published there. Our laws are simply less amenable to individuals editing the record through libel actions.

None of us want inaccurate information on our shelves, but it’s there. We have information that is contradictory, biased, past its shelf life, and controversial. We don’t, as a rule, buy books that are shoddily researched, but this lawsuit wasn’t about the entire book, only the part of it that that recapped newspaper and other sources’ reports about the role of a Saudi bank.

Part of being information literate is learning how to triangulate the truth using multiple sources, knowing that even good sources are likely to contain the occasional inaccuracy, that different sources will shade a story in various ways, that you need to consult more than one source to get the facts. Airbrushing controversial ideas out of the picture doesn’t help, and sometimes it’s critically important to examine texts that we know to be full of lies.

Ironically, Publisher’s Weekly has a report on a different kind of controversy in Germany. Should a scholarly edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf be published before it goes into public domain and will likely become freely available in multiple editions? Though I’m sympathetic to views that nobody should promulgate the kind of hate that’s found in the book, it’s a significant historical document. And since any deluded white supremacist can find it on the Web, it doesn’t seem constructive to prevent the release of a carefully edited version.

Academic libraries are rarely faced with the book challenges that public and school libraries receive routinely. This seems to be one of them. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to celebrate Banned Books Week next month.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

7 thoughts on “So Sue Me

  1. I can’t imagine that librarians would agree to such a decree. We are not in the business of banning books.

  2. I’m puzzled by the sentence about Mein Kampf. I assumed that the text was ready in the public domain. Who has been profitting from those words all these years?

  3. As PW explains in the final paragraphs of the article, Houghton Mifflin bought US rights in 1933. It’s not old enough to be public domain. During the war years, they lost the exclusive right when it was seized by the US government (war reparations?) HM got them back in 1979 and only donated the profits to appropriate charities when someone pointed out in an embarrassing 2000 US News report that they had net sales on Mein Kampf between $300,000 and $700,000 in the years 1979 through 2000. (Another tidbit: it was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1943.)

    So – short answer is Houghton Mifflin was making the money. Now they give it away.

  4. I think it’s a great idea for academic libraries to celebrate Banned Books Week. It would make sense to pair up with the literature departments on campus, since most of these books tend to be literature.

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