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Chutzpah and free speech

Jon Wiener is professor of history at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of "Historians in Trouble" (New Press, 2005).

Governors are asked by members of the public to do lots of things, but the request Arnold Schwarzenegger got from Alan Dershowitz in December was unique: to intervene with the University of California Press’ plans to publish a book. Why does Dershowitz care? Because the book in question -- Norman Finkelstein’s “Beyond Chutzpah,” due out next month -- is harshly critical of Dershowitz.

Schwarzenegger, to his credit, answered with an unequivocal “no.” The governor’s legal advisor wrote Dershowitz: “You have asked for the Governor’s assistance in preventing the publication of this book,” but “he is not inclined to otherwise exert influence in this case because of the clear, academic freedom issue it presents.”

Thus the star of “The Terminator” sought to teach a lesson about academic freedom to a Harvard law professor.

But Dershowitz’s campaign against the book went beyond his letter to Schwarzenegger.

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He had his lawyers send belligerent letters to dozens of people who might have power over the process. A letter from attorney Rory Millson of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, for instance, was dispatched to Lynne Withey, director of the UC Press, declaring that “the press’s decision to publish this book” lends “legitimacy to the wholly illegitimate” and is “part of a conspiracy to defame” Dershowitz. It concludes, “The only way to extricate yourself is immediately to terminate all professional contact with this full-time malicious defamer.” In a letter to members of the faculty editorial committee, Dershowitz calls on them to “reconsider your decision.”

Everyone knows Alan Dershowitz. Part of the O.J. Simpson defense team, author of the bestseller “Chutzpah,” he was portrayed in “Reversal of Fortune,” a movie about his defense of accused wife-murderer Klaus von Bulow. He’s also one of Israel’s outspoken defenders, especially in his 2003 book, “The Case for Israel.” That’s the book Finkelstein challenges in “Beyond Chutzpah.”

Norman Finkelstein is not so well-known. The son of Holocaust survivors, he is an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. He’s the author of several controversial books, including “The Holocaust Industry.” That book criticizes Jewish organizations and Israel for exploiting the Holocaust and Jewish suffering, and questions whether the Holocaust was a uniquely evil historical event. It was reviewed in the New York Times by Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, who criticized its “indifference to historical facts, inner contradictions, strident politics and dubious contextualizations.” But “The Holocaust Industry” also has some prominent supporters, including Raul Hilberg, the semi-official dean of Holocaust studies and author of the classic “The Destruction of the European Jews.”

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that once a legitimate publisher such as UC Press decides a book deserves to be brought out, a civil liberties lawyer such as Dershowitz should know better than to try to squelch it -- no matter how controversial Finkelstein’s last book, and no matter what Dershowitz thinks the new one will say.

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Even if Dershowitz really believes the new book is wrong -- even if he believes Finkelstein has misrepresented him in the past -- he would be out of line in seeking to stop its publication. To do so would violate the author’s free speech and challenge the academic freedom of the University of California.

After all, the UC Press has an unusually demanding review process. When an editor decides a manuscript is worth publishing, it is sent out for peer review by leading scholars in the field -- at least two, but in Finkelstein’s case, according to Withey, “we had six.” If it passes that hurdle, the manuscript and the peer evaluations are sent to a faculty editorial committee, which makes its own recommendation.

That committee consists of 20 University of California faculty members. If the manuscript raises potential legal issues, it is also reviewed by a libel attorney. (It is not sent out for “corrections” to those who are criticized in its pages.)

“Beyond Chutzpah,” which I’ve read in galley form, is harshly critical of Dershowitz -- mostly for his arguments defending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Dershowitz lauded Israel’s human rights record in his book; Finkelstein counters by citing groups such as Amnesty International, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. The book is a series of juxtapositions -- arguments by Dershowitz on torture, assassinations, treatment of Palestinian children, followed by refutations from human rights organizations.

Dershowitz has a right to be worried about how he will be treated in the book. Perhaps it was even legitimate for him to contact the UC Press about misstatements he believes Finkelstein has made about him in the past. And the Press certainly has an obligation to publish an accurate book.

But for Dershowitz to try to stop publication of the book is simply unacceptable. The appropriate response to speech that is wrong is not to silence it, but to argue against it -- because nobody has a monopoly on the truth.

Dershowitz, of course, knows all this. He has said he doesn’t want to suppress Finkelstein’s freedom of speech, but that he wants to ensure that “maliciously false statements about me ... are not published.” In fact, he says he supports publication of Finkelstein’s book -- by some publisher other than UC Press, which, he told me, should not “give its imprimatur” to Finkelstein’s work. Instead, he said, it should be published by “the kind of publisher that publishes those kinds of books.”

Thanks in part to Schwarzenegger, Dershowitz doesn’t get to decide who publishes a book that criticizes him.

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