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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

Posted: August 7, 2007 02:07 PM

Innovative Approach to Censorship


Imagine this scenario. Two reputable American scholars write a book about how certain ostensibly charitable organizations are financial pass-throughs for radical terrorist groups. The book, which is amply documented, is published by a major academic press in Great Britain. Soon after the book appears, a wealthy Saudi sheik sues the publisher (not the authors) for libel. The publisher, evidently fearful of the cost and burden of litigation, promptly announces that it is withdrawing the book from circulation. It requests that all copies of the book be returned by booksellers and libraries so that the book may be pulped, destroyed, never read by anyone. The publisher issues a statement of apology, acknowledging serious (but undefined) errors in the book, and makes a financial award to the sheik, who pledges to give the money to UNICEF (the sheik is a multi-billionaire).

Sounds like the makings of a good thriller, no?

Unfortunately, the story is truth, not fiction. The book is Alms for Jihad by J. Millard Burr, a former intelligence analyst at the State Department, and Robert O. Collins, an emeritus professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. It was published in April 2006 by Cambridge University Press and withdrawn from circulation in July 2007. If you go to the CUP webpage, you will find an interesting summary of the book, excerpts from good reviews, and a notice that the book is now out of print and unavailable. Also on the CUP website is the publisher's abject apology for printing the book.

In the United States, it is almost impossible to libel a public figure. Over the years, our courts have developed a very expansive view of freedom to speak and publish. By contrast, British courts may well award a huge sum to public figures who do not like what is written about them. Evidently, Cambridge University Press did not want to take the risk of battling the very litigious and very wealthy Saudi sheik in courts and decided to pulp the book instead, despite the fact that the authors stood behind their claims with documentation.

I went on the web to see if I could locate a copy of the book. A search service offered to sell it to me for $111.00. In short, it is now a collector's item.

Surely some enterprising American publisher should jump in, obtain the rights that CUP has apparently abandoned, and publish this book where it will be protected by the First Amendment. Then we can all read what the authors wrote and judge for ourselves, allowing the marketplace of ideas to function as it should.