Scholars rally behind McMaster librarian facing libel lawsuits

Academics from across North America have expressed their support for Dale Askey, the McMaster librarian who's being sued for $4.5 million by a small U.S.-based publishing company.
A U.S.-based publishing company is suing Dale Askey, an associate librarian at McMaster University, for libel in response to comments he made on his blog in 2010. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Academics from across North America have rallied behind Dale Askey, the McMaster librarian who's being sued for $4.5 million by a small U.S.-based publishing company.

His supporters, which include scores university librarians and their professional organizations, are demanding that Edwin Mellen Press (EMP) drop its libel claims against Askey and McMaster University.

"We urge the Edwin Mellen Press to withdraw this lawsuit and, if it is not withdrawn, we support McMaster University in its resolve to defend Mr. Askey's academic freedom," the Association of Canadian University Presses said in a Feb. 19 news release.

The Canadian Library Association, the York University Faculty Association's library chapter, the British Columbia Library Association and the Toronto chapter of the Progressive Librarians Guild have issued similar statements.

U.S. groups including the Medical Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the American Association of University Professors have also come out in support of Askey.

EMP founder Herbert Richardson, who is a plaintiff in one of claims, told CBC Hamilton on Friday that the he and the company will continue their lawsuits, adding he believes it's unfair for library associations to condemn him for taking his case to civil court.

"I happen to be a simple, little, idealistic person, and I've believed from the time when I was small boy that everybody who lives in a democratic country should have the right to have their claims heard in court."

2010 blog post

EMP has filed two lawsuits against Askey and McMaster University, claiming a total of $4.5 million in damages. The claims have yet to be proven in court.

In the first filing, submitted in June of last year, the company alleges that statements Askey made in a Sept. 2010 blog post while he was working at a Kansas university were both "false" and "defamatory in its tone and context."

In his entry "The Curious Case of Edwin Mellen Press," which has since been removed from the website, Askey referred to the company as a "dubious publisher" and a purveyor of "second-class scholarship."

The librarian went on to advise that, "in a time when libraries cannot purchase so much of the first-class scholarship, there is simply no reason to support such ventures."

Askey began working at McMaster two years ago, and the post remained on his website into 2012.

The suit claims that McMaster is liable for allowing Askey "to continue the publications" and for refusing to force him to take the posting down.

Online petition

On Feb. 8, Martha Reineke, a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa, created an online petition on the social activism site Change.org demanding that EMP drop its lawsuit.

Martha Reineke, a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa, started a petition demanding Edwin Mellen Press to drop its lawsuits against Dale Askey and McMaster University. (Supplied)

By Friday morning, the page had garnered more than 2,700 names.

Reineke read about Askey's situation in a piece on the education website Inside Higher Ed, and decided she needed to do something to help his cause.

"I am so dependent on librarians — they make possible my work — that I thought, 'This is wrong.' "

She said scholars, particularly young ones, need university librarians to vet the quality of academic publications, including books, journals and digital material. Putting a chill on professionals like Askey has negative consequences for scholars everywhere, she said.

"The way I know that a journal has a high ranking is because of the work that librarians do. They crunch the numbers on academic quality."

EMP's decision to sue, she noted, may have done more damage to the company's reputation than the blog post had. She suggested that publishing a written defense in response to Askey's blog post might have been a more fruitful course of action.

"If you don't like an evaluation of your press, then you should provide counter-evidence of their point," she said. "Instead they've filed a lawsuit. That's not a way you handle a disagreement in academia."

Reacting to the outpouring of support, Askey said "it's been really positive." Though, he noted he isn't surprised by the response.

"People in the profession of librarianship tend to have really strong views about free speech in academic discourse," he said. "On the whole, it's been a really good confirmation of the values and beliefs that I've heard expressed in the profession."

EMP's Richardson says his company is a niche firm that takes on highly specialized authors whose books might not otherwise get published.

"The books we publish, if Harvard doesn't buy them, their library is worse off."

Richardson adds that he doubts the vocal opposition to the lawsuits will result in a significant drop in demand for his firm's publications.

"I do not believe that the attack by this small group of librarians is going to mean that serious scholars and serious librarians are not going to buy the type of scholarship we publish."