Academic libel trial takes tragicomic turn: Part 1

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Worried about a possible defamation suit, Slavic studies professors exchange unwittingly hilarious emails about the plaintiff, which are later revealed in court

(February 2015) Diane Koenker leaves her London Review of Books tote bag on the defence counsel’s table and takes her place on the witness stand. A no-nonsense woman, whose one concession to the beauty industry is revealed by the white roots of her short brown hair, Koenker is a Soviet and modern Russia specialist and the head of the history department at the University at Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She has travelled to Toronto to testify at this defamation trial because a decade ago she was the editor of the academic journal, Slavic Review. Under her leadership, it published a highly unflattering review of the book, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940–1945 by Gunnar S. Paulsson, PhD.

Paulsson, a Toronto resident who made a mid-life career switch from the computer business into academia, believes that the Slavic Review’s critique torpedoed his chances of ever finding a tenured teaching position and caused him to become known as a crackpot and anti-semite. As soon as he read the review in the summer of 2004, he contacted Koenker to demand a retraction, an apology, and the commissioning of a replacement review. Although she eventually conceded that the disputed book review did indeed contain sloppy errors, Koenker would not offer Paulsson anything more than the standard 250-word reply in the letters column. After much back and forth, including one false promise of resolution, Paulsson threatened a libel suit. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Koenker alerted the members of her editorial board. Her warning email began:

Dear Friends,
The Slavic Review Editorial Board is scheduled to meet at the Boston Meeting of the AAASS on Sunday December 5, 10:15 am to 12:15 pm in the Salon 1 meeting room. Due to financial exigencies, there will be no refreshments. There is also relatively little urgent business with the exception of a small dark cloud on the horizon concerning a book review.

Padraic Kenney, a board member who now teaches at Indiana University, realized immediately that the unnamed book causing the problems had to be the recent winner of the Orbis Prize, awarded bi-annually by the Polish Studies Association, whose book prize committee he happened to chair. He asked Koenker if there was anything he could do to mediate and they agreed it might help if he tried to calm Paulsson down. Unfortunately, their plan backfired. “It’s getting worse,” wrote Kenney ten days later. “Just got an email from Paulsson, full of invective and clear legal threats. This guy is difficult.” Given that he would be presenting Paulsson with his Polish Studies book prize right before dashing off to the Slavic Review editorial board meeting, Kenney worried about potential awkwardness. “My toughest task that morning will be, I think, to disengage from him after awarding his prize … I am confident I will be able to make it to the meeting alone, but one never knows.”

As the conference drew nearer, board members vied to outdo each other with declarations of support for academic freedom of speech and advisories about the dangers of allowing unwanted guests to attend their get-together. “Dear Padraic,” wrote one distinguished chair-holding professor, “I suggest you use your charm and persuasive powers to convince Paulsson not to crash the board meeting.” To which Kenney responded: “I will escape the PSA meeting through a trapdoor in the ceiling emerging thru a heating duct — in disguise, of course, into the SR meeting.”

Finally, in the last of the editorial board’s pre-Boston communications, Koenker emailed everyone: “I’ve heard enough to confirm my own feeling that we should not set a precedent by by turning the board meeting into a public hearing. Should Dr. Paulsson follow Padraic through the ventilator shaft, I will ask him to leave, and if he does not, (I will) have the phone number of hotel security handy to have him removed.”

Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945 by Gunnar S. PaulssonWhile Paulsson is not suing Koenker, his defamation lawsuit, which was eventually launched in 2006, names as defendants the Slavic Review; its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies; the University of Illinois, which hosted the journal and lessened Koenker’s teaching load so she could edit it; and the author of the book review, Leo Cooper, a 93-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and an honorary faculty member at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Complicating matters further Cooper has declined to defend himself, meaning a default judgment against him is granted automatically. The University of Illinois and the Slavic Studies Association are represented by Geoffrey Adair, a top Toronto trial lawyer who has called Koenker to testify for the defence. The Slavic Review is not considered a legal entity.

Adair begins his questioning of Koenker, the second and last of the witnesses he calls during the trial, by eliciting biographical details designed to show the jury that she is an eminently reasonable and respectable woman. He notes in his big booming courtroom drawl that she is mentioned in Who’s Who and has just recently won the outstanding achievement award of the Association of Women in Slavic Studies. The long list of books Koenker’s edited and written includes Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution, Revolutions from the Russian Archives and, most recently, Club Red: Vacation, Travel and the Soviet Dream, published by Cornell University Press in 2013.

“What’s the theme of that book? What’s it all about?” asks Adair, who, throughout the trial, has cast himself in the role of interpreter to the jury of the strange and cutthroat customs of academia.

“It’s a study of Soviet vacation practices and tourism under socialism from the 1920s to the 1980s,” answers Koenker, warming to her subject matter. “There were two types of vacations. One was a health spa and the other was active tourism.”

“What does a book like that contribute for historians?” asks Adair, who could be either genuinely puzzled or faking it.

“It is trying to argue that there was a consumer society under socialism, that there was a particular set of practices and values, that it was driven by consumer demand and not just the regime.”

“I see,” says the lawyer, politely cutting his witness short and shifting topics before the jury’s attention wavers. He will spend the next hour or so skillfully guiding Koenker through a long series of questions about the operations of the Slavic Review and her handling of the dispute over the review of Paulsson’s book. Despite a bit of a bureaucratic streak, she comes across as a fair-minded and dedicated scholar who was truly worried about the dangerous precedent that would have been set had she withdrawn a negative book review.

***********

In preparing for this trial and his cross examination of Koenker, Paulsson has studied up on courtroom technique even going so far as to read Geoffrey Adair’s book on the topic, On Trial – Advocacy Skills Law and Practice. Yet under the pressure of trial, he forgets what every casual Law and Order watcher knows: never ask a question in court if you don’t already know the answer. After meandering from subject to subject — touching upon Soviet propaganda and Dezinformatsiya, as he pronounces it with an authentic-sounding Slavic accent — Paulsson moves in for what he clearly hopes will be the killer question of his cross examination.

He asks Koenker how she would have felt if, back when she was a young, aspiring academic, a reviewer had characterized her first book as Stalinist propaganda. Although she’s paused warily before answering many of Paulsson’s previous questions, Koenker responds to this one without hesitation. Her second book, she says, almost a little bit triumphantly, “was reviewed in a very prominent literary journal, the Times literary Supplement, by a prominent historian, who accused me of inadvertently imbibing Marxist-Leninist propaganda.”

Paulsson is taken aback. “Inadvertently imbibing,” he mumbles to himself stalling for time and shuffling papers before opting to try a completely different tactic. “Diane Koenker is wearing a pink shirt,” he announces. “Is that an honest statement?” Given that the witness’s blouse is a colour I would describe as plum, I’m confused by what Paulsson’s trying to achieve, but Koenker doesn’t skip a beat. “That’s a factual statement,” she replies. “Honesty implies a value judgment.”

“Does it really?” asks Paulsson dramatically as he turns to look at the defence counsel. “Mr. Adair, is your client wearing a pink shirt?” Adair appears ready to raise an objection, but before he’s out of his chair, Madame Justice Darla Wilson, who has been extremely patient with Paulsson’s lack of familiarity with the law through a week of trial, interrupts. “Doctor,” she says firmly, “the purpose of cross examination is to ask the witness questions that are relevant to the issues and lawsuit.”

After many more such admonitions from the judge and objections from the defence, Paulsson finally winds up his cross examination back at the 2004 Boston conference. Although the Slavic Review’s editorial board affirmed the rightness of its previous position and decided to grant no concessions, both Koenker and Kenney left Boston cautiously optimistic that Paulsson might be prepared to let things drop. Kenney had gone out of his way to tell him how much he liked Secret City and that it was beneath him to get tangled up with Cooper in a petty dispute. Koenker learned that a former grad student of hers, who was interested in the Catholic church in Poland during the war, had met Paulsson at the book exhibits. “If he can establish a working relationship with Paulsson, this will also be helpful in conveying norms and ‘socializing’ him,” she wrote in a post-conference email to Kenney.

At the trial, Paulsson calls on Koenker to explain what exactly she meant by socialize, a term he finds patronizing. “I felt that he might help you understand the ways of American academia and why the response to a negative book review might be better pursued in a positive way,” she explains. Minutes later she steps down from the witness stand and is shepherded by Mr. Adair’s junior co-counsel, Jennifer King, into a taxi cab that takes her to the airport. Soon she will be back in the United States which, despite its legendary litigiousness, is a country where it is far more difficult to sue for libel than Canada or pretty much anywhere else in the world.

This trial took place in the winter of 2015. For reasons which I won’t get into yet, I am only publishing this article now, two and a half years later. 

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

Part 3 will be published next week. Follow me on Twitter @AnnB03 to receive notification