Juan Cole is howling about a threat of legal action from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which objects to claims he made about its press monitoring operation—claims which, according to MEMRI’s president Yigal Carmon, are factually untrue. Cole claimed that MEMRI is funded “to the tune of $60 million a year” (an absurd figure), that MEMRI is biased (in the eye of the beholder), and that it is somehow linked to the Likud party (it isn’t). MEMRI now demands a retraction on all three points, and threatens Cole with possible legal action if he fails to do so.
When I read Cole’s posting, it reminded me of an earlier threat to sue—made by Juan Cole to Daniel Pipes and myself, after the Campus Watch website came online on September 18, 2002. I received a message from Cole on September 23, 2002, and it read as follows:
Subject: Cease and desist
Dear Mssrs. Pipes and Kramer:
It has come to my attention that your organization, Middle East Forum, is maintaining a Web site with “dossiers” on me. Further, that you have publicly called upon others to monitor my speech and actions on a constant basis and to provide to your internet Web site reports on me, which you intend to post.
As a result of your actions, I have been the victim of repetitive spam attacks, which a reasonable person could have foreseen.
I maintain that these actions may constitute a form of stalking, including cyberstalking, as defined under relevant Pennsylvania and Michigan state statutes. I believe they also may constitute conspiracy to encourage others to stalk, and may be actionable under those grounds as well.
If you do not immediately remove my name from your monitoring Web site, cease maintaining a “dossier” on me, and cease and desist from calling upon others to spy on me and repudiate your earlier calls to do so, I reserve the right to pursue all legal remedies, criminal and civil.
Department of History
I ignored this threat because I wasn’t a party to Campus Watch (another case of Cole jumping to conclusions). I know that Pipes ignored it as well, and he adduced other reasons when he made adjustments to the website on September 30.
What strikes me, in retrospect, is how quick Cole was to threaten legal action, when in fact Campus Watch did far less damage to him than he has done to MEMRI. Campus Watch simply listed Cole and put together a collection of links to his work. (The list looked like this; Cole’s “dossier” looked like this.) At that point, Campus Watch had made no specific assertions about his scholarship; nor had it said a word about his funding, his biases, or his party political affiliations. And Campus Watch, which did not post Cole’s e-mail, encouraged no one to bombard Cole with spam, something Cole may have prompted his thousands of readers to do to MEMRI, by publishing its e-mail address and urging them to write to it.
MEMRI’s president, Yigal Carmon, shouldn’t have threatened legal action—in part because it makes too much of Cole, who’s famously prone to fact-free tantrums, and whose weblog is an embarrassment of errors. But in the same measure, Juan Cole shouldn’t have threatened action two years ago against Daniel Pipes and myself. I don’t like the culture of litigation, where people deal with criticism by legal intimidation instead of arguments. Cole now piously writes that “threatening bloggers with lawsuits… violates the essential spirit of open discourse on the Web,” and he’s urged his readers to demand that MEMRI “respect the spirit of the free sharing of ideas that makes the internet possible.” But the sad truth is that Cole himself was the first to hurl the threat of a frivolous lawsuit against a website—and with far less justification.