Why CUP acted responsibly

Certain commentators in the USA have accused Cambridge University Press of cowardice for its decision to withdraw from future sale the remaining stock of its book Alms for Jihad.  No-one has “bullied Cambridge University Press into making (that) decision”. It was taken on the basis of legal advice and consultation with the book’s authors.

Alms for Jihad was published in April 2006 and had already sold most of its copies by the time we received, in March 2007, notice from his lawyers that the book contained statements defamatory of Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz. This was the first time that anyone had brought it to our attention.

Legal advice then revealed that the very same charges of defamation against other authors and publishers had been upheld by judges in the English High Court on at least two previous occasions. Our book cited sources whose falsity had been established to the satisfaction of the English courts. In one ruling Mr Justice Eady stated that “The court is naturally conscious of the importance of freedom of speech and of the need to ensure as far as possible that its judicial processes are not abused by anyone who may seek to vindicate himself on a false basis and thus mislead the public.”… but still went on to find the statements against bin Mahfouz defamatory. Within the English jurisdiction and under English libel laws we simply did not have a defensible case.

Cambridge University Press is not in business to do ideological battle but to act responsibly as a publisher of scholarly material. It would not be a responsible use of our resources, nor in the interests of any of our scholarly authors, to attempt to defend a legal action in circumstances such as the above. Our decision to withdraw the book may indeed have been “un-American” in Jeffrey A Stern’s sense of that term, but we are a global publisher with a duty to observe the laws of many different countries. Stern may have issues with English libel law, but he should not criticise a publisher for upholding its responsibility to stay within that law.

Some American public opinion holds that Sheikh bin Mahfouz is “guilty of funding terrorism”, but Cambridge University Press cannot act on the basis of popular opinion, however widely held. Evidence must be found. And the evidence produced by the authors of Alms for Jihad, repeated from earlier sources, has not stood up to the requisite tests. Even if we had taken our own case to judgement, an adverse outcome would have done nothing to vindicate the work of our authors, who would then have been even more publicly characterised as having failed the tests required by English libel law.