Monday, February 18, 2013

The curious case of Edwin Mellen Press suing a university librarian for libel

In a follow up to the blog entry on the threats to the freedom to blog, I just want to provide a bit more perspective on the curious case of Edwin Mellen Press suing a university librarian for libel (New, 2013). 

Prior to this year 2013, when faced with blogs that criticise businesses, corporations either sought to counteract those blogs by responding to them or denying the criticisms. Several of these cases are cited in Kline, Burstein, De Keijzer, and Berger (2005). However, within this year, this is the first time that I have seen where corporations faced with criticism from users of blogs go out to attack the critic by law suit. This is a very precedental law suit that has implications for blogging in general and for librarians and universities in particular.

For one, it raises the question of how much freedom do persons have to blog their criticisms and complaints, without being sued for defamation and libel? Second it raises the question of how much freedom do librarians have to blog their analysis of information sources and make it publicly accessible and available to others. Thirdly, it begs the question as to whether universities should permit staff and affiliates to blog any at all?

Unlike the regular complainers or customers, part of a librarian's work is to evaluate information sources in terms of quality and other criteria. As such, librarians in the process of engaging in their work must critically analyse information products and even technologies offered by vendors. From our evaluations, we must make recommendations. And within a university environment, we should be entitled to recommend to our users what sources they must avoid. Is it that, publishers that develop information products do not want us to put our evaluations on websites or blogs? Should publishers not act as businesses have done in the past, by spending the money to address the quality concerns of customers as posted on the Web rather than paying lawyers to sue for damages?


Finally, for universities, I can predict that policies will be put in place to prevent staff from criticising institutions and businesses in order to reduce liabilities and law suits. After all, the new capitalistic university, that has to raise much of its funding from institutions and corporations,  will need as many institutional and corporate friends as possible, and as little enemies as possible. Who else will they go to in order to "beg","solicit" or "ask for donations to their endowment fund"? Especially, if some of those leading/managing those corporations happen to be their alumni.

For librarians, the university's regulation of social media, perhaps may lead to more reliance on and preference for email or intranet as the technology to communicate, while websites and social media will be reserved for restricted and less authentic communication with those outside of one's organization. After all, we can still email our opinions to those who need to know in order keep it out of the public sphere and still have the desired effect. Until, companies and corporations decide to sue librarians and customers for defamation and libel through email.


References:

Kline, D., Burstein, D., De Keijzer, A. J., & Berger, P. (2005). Blog! :How the newest media revolution is changing politics, business, and culture. New York: CDS Books in association with Squibnocket Partners LLC.

New, J. (2013, Feb 8). Edwin Mellen Press sues university librarian for libel. The Chronicle of Higher Education Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/edwin-mellen-press-sues-university-librarian-for-libel/42193

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