A Hamilton librarian is facing a $3.5-million lawsuit over a personal blog post he wrote three years ago.
“The worst thing I’ve ever been served with is a traffic ticket, so it was really a shock,” said Dale Askey, an associate librarian at McMaster University.
Edwin Mellen Press Ltd., an international academic publishing company, filed two lawsuits last June.
The first suit was served against Askey last summer, by the company’s founder, Herbert Richardson.
A second suit for $3.5 million was served in December by the company itself against both Askey and McMaster.
The most recent statement of claim alleges Askey accused Mellen Press of “accepting second class authors” and urging “university libraries not to buy (their) titles because they are of poor quality and poor scholarship.”
Askey says “I offered a fair and professional opinion and didn’t even remotely think this was a possibility.” He said his blog typically gets about 50 hits a day.
“It’s very modest … it’s niche, it’s small … generally speaking, I write on pretty narrow topics for a pretty narrow audience,” he said.
According to the company’s statement of claim, Askey, in his post titled The Curious Case of Edwin Mellen Press, allegedly called the company “dubious” and “a junk publisher,” suggesting their books are sold at “egregiously high prices” despite “second-class scholarship.”
A statement of claim contains allegations that have not yet been proven in court.
Mellen Press also alleges in their claim that the company has been greatly injured in its professional and corporate reputations, and has been the victim of a malicious attack by Askey and McMaster.
The claim also alleges the defendants “pursued an Internet campaign to put The Press out of business” and that McMaster “wrongfully disavowed any responsibility for Askey and threatened to sue The Press.”
McMaster is liable, the claim says, because the university allowed Askey to continue blogging and refused to force him to take down the post — even though the original posting was written months before Askey began working at the university.
Askey’s lawyer Brian Rogers points out that while his client is being sued in Canada, the post was written while Askey was living in the United States, where libel law is very different.
Rogers is one of Canada’s leading media lawyers. He represents various news organizations including The Spectator.
McMaster has expressed support for Askey.
“Because of our respect for individual freedom of speech, the University finds itself today a co-defendant with Mr. Askey in a legal action brought by the Edwin Mellen Press,” the university said in an online statement Friday.
Librarians across the country expressed outrage as a petition circulated online this weekend urging Edwin Mellen Press to drop the lawsuit.
The Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) stated in a post on their own blog that they see the suit as “a threat to academic freedom not just at McMaster University but academia everywhere.”
CAPAL also said they want to “affirm the right of academic librarians to voice their opinions about materials they collect, and this includes the publishers from whom these materials are purchased.”
Askey said he started the blog while he was working at a German university in 2009, to demonstrate to students how to reach an audience through social media.
He wrote the post in question in September 2010.
“I was exercising my professional judgment and writing about a professional issue for my professional peers. It’s geared much more toward librarians. I used examples but the point was to talk about how libraries spend their money,” he said.
Askey first learned the publishing company was aware of his blog in May 2011, a few months after he began working at McMaster. There was correspondence back and forth but he was shocked when he was officially served with the legal documents last summer.
“I think for librarianship and for the academy, it’s a test of what academic freedom is and what … we’re willing to do to defend such freedoms,” Askey said, adding that he has received “a lot of support internally” from McMaster.
“I’ll say that I’ve been very gratified,” he said. “In particular, I’ll say Patrick Deane is a man of integrity and high ethics and I’m really pleased that he’s been supportive.”
Askey said he’s been told the suit will in no way affect his status at the university. He has not yet filed a statement of defence, although Rogers says the blog post was taken offline prior to the filing of the lawsuits. Edwin Mellen Press did not respond to repeated interview requests.